Constitutional Reforms: A victory of democracy – by Ayaz Amir

Thank God for small mercies
Islamabad diary

This could have been a wrecking moment, another corrosive chapter in a history not given to too many bright moments. But if the worst did not happen, and if disaster was averted, it was only because politicians, denounced and vilified so much, were in charge of the exercise.

The Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reforms, with every party in parliament represented in it, had deliberated on undoing the mischief of Pervez Musharraf’s 17th Amendment for full nine months. The PML-N members of the Committee – Ishaq Dar, Mehtab Abbasi, Ahsan Iqbal, Zahid Hamid – were amongst its most active members. Not only had they gone every step of the way with the rest of the committee. Their input was crucial in determining the final shape of the 18th Amendment.

It wasn’t just that. If there was any party which had made the cleansing of the Constitution its own cause it was the PML-N. As soon as Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry and his fellow judges were restored to the Supreme Court in March last year, the PML-N had mounted the ramparts and raised the cry that democracy’s battle was only half won and would not be complete unless the 17th Amendment, the essence of Musharraf’s constitutional mutilation, was repealed.

The PML-N’s stance on the judiciary and the restoration of the Constitution to its pre-Musharraf form served it well, enabling it to occupy the moral high ground, a task made all the more easy because of the many disabilities under which the PPP laboured. That it was the party headed by Asif Ali Zardari was enough to condemn it. It was also associated in the public mind with incompetence and a reputation for unrelieved corruption.

There was also the question of credibility. As the Constitutional Committee started its work not many people in the political class were willing to bet that President Zardari would willingly surrender the powers vested in his office by the 17th Amendment. When smaller parties raised such questions as the ambit of provincial autonomy or a new name for the Frontier province, these were taken as delaying tactics to sidetrack the committee from focusing on its principal task of undoing Musharraf’s constitutional legacy.

For once the sceptics were not only proved long. They were left dumbfounded. Led by Senator Raza Rabbani – who deserves all praise for not succumbing to despair and for keeping the deliberations going – the committee went through the Constitution with a fine comb and hammered out a consensus on 95 points. All that remained was to place the 18th Amendment before parliament and pour out the Rooh Afza – there being, alas, for the good of our immortal souls no doubt, no champagne in the Islamic Republic.

Just then, with a sense of timing that could be the envy of a performer on the stage, and living up to his reputation as a master of surprise, Mian Nawaz Sharif hurled his bombshell. The PML-N, he said, had serious reservations about Pakhtunkhwa as the new name for the Frontier and it wanted a change in the formula for the appointment of senior judges. Talk of euphoria hitting a dead wall, or a magic spell rudely broken – something along those lines was the effect of that bombshell.

Had the other parties exploded in anger or even gone into a sulk, their reaction, even if counted as deplorable, would have been easy to understand. But I suppose it is a measure of the new maturity of the Pakistani political class that such a reaction did not occur. Shouting statements or charges of betrayal were assiduously avoided. The matter was not even raised in the National Assembly even when the temptation to do so was great.

It was as if everyone realised that something important was at stake: that if all the hard work was allowed to go down the drain, it would be a severe setback for a democracy still trying to find a firm foothold. It is to the credit of the committee, its chairman and all its members – and when the credits are shared I think full marks have to be given to the PML-N, especially Ishaq Dar, whose personal standing with the other members proved crucial when it came to the breakthrough – that they kept their calm and instead of accusing the PML-N of revisiting things already agreed, accommodated its viewpoint on both the issues it had raised.

The Frontier now is to become Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Khyber being a concession to the PML-N, although what good it really does will remain a matter of conjecture; whereas in the judicial commission the seventh member is to be appointed by the chief justice in consultation with the next two senior judges.

The ‘beauty of democracy’ has become an all-weather cliché. Stuck for an answer out we come with it (leading me often, when I hear it, to reach for my pistol). Yet there is something in this for us to ponder over.

Uzbekistan, Burma, and the blessed Ummah may thrive (although that’s problematic) under autocratic rule. An emir may rule Kuwait and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques bear the destiny of his kingdom in the palm of his hands (although to be fair to Saudi Arabia there is a process of consultation in the extended royal family). But for Pakistan this is the kiss of death.

Not because democracy lies in our genes – it does not – but because our birth was through a constitutional process. Democracy, and not the Jamaat-e-Islami or the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, created Pakistan. Our founding fathers dreamt of an egalitarian republic, not the monument to hypocrisy raised by various tin-pot dictators.

There is a tendency in Pakistan – most pronounced in retired military men, religious warriors and the non-voting middle class – to denounce political parties as a cesspool wherein flourish the vilest manifestations of the human condition. Such enlightened souls would do well to remember that the biggest disasters to befall Pakistan – the 1965 war, the dismemberment, the rise of religious extremism, the loss of the Siachen Glacier, the misadventure in Kargil – were gifts of military rule.

Had the spirit shown by all the political parties over the 18th Amendment prevailed in 1971, things might not have come to the pass they did. Had the political parties shown a similar spirit of mutual accommodation in 1977, and had Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto not been the autocrat that he was, Zia’s coup, whose after-effects disfigured Pakistan and continue to blight its appearance, might have been averted.

The 1973 Constitution could only have been agreed upon in a democratic setting. The agreement on the 18th Amendment could only have been brokered by politicians. What could have been a disastrous breakdown was only prevented because politicians, schooled in the necessities of compromise and the business of give-and-take, were at the helm.

Which is not to say that the 18th Amendment and the hosannas surrounding its passage will take care of Pakistan’s other problems. Beyond the subtlety of judicial and political issues lies another world: that of real problems. To a population hit by inflation, power cuts and the lack of jobs it is small consolation that Musharraf’s constitutional legacy is being swept into the sea. There is a growing feeling in the country that the last two years have been largely wasted: the political class and the intelligentsia (or what there is of it in Pakistan) seized with ‘academic’ issues while public frustration and anger have been rising and now are truly on the march.

But in the war against extremism Pakistan has notched a clear victory. Terrorism while not eradicated – far from it – is on the defensive. While in this the main laurels have been won by the army, followed closely by the air force, this success could not have been achieved without unequivocal political backing, a conclusion which the military would do well to take to its heart. Now, hopefully, with the passage of the 18th Amendment, political issues which have been distracting attention from other fronts will be behind us. The time for excuses will be finally over.

With the army doing its job, the political arm of the state bestirring itself and rising to the other challenges facing the country, and their lordships somehow bringing themselves to place discretion before valour – although this could be hoping for too much in the present super-charged judicial atmosphere – Pakistan could then, hopefully, enter the real world.

And its people could hope for some overdue attention to their real problems.


Source: The News



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