Looking beyond the polls

, by REHMAN I. A.

WITH polling day less than a fortnight away, the
greatest cause of anxiety among democratic-minded
people is whether the anti-authoritarian
stirrings of the past few months will survive the
so-called general election. The question touches
on the present society’s capacity for realising a
democratic change as well as the direction of its

Whatever the outcome of the electoral exercise,
it has already split the political community into
two camps, one of them hoping for salvation by
joining the process and the other by boycotting
it. Neither camp apparently has a reason to be
sanguine about its success.

Those joining the electoral race are crying
themselves hoarse that the establishment is
determined to rig the election and their
inability to foil such designs will hardly be
challenged. The boycott group argues that,
instead of leading to a democratic dispensation,
the election will only extend and legitimise
authoritarian rule. But, regardless of the logic
in its stand, this group too has not been able to
demonstrate the strength needed to defeat the
forces of the status quo.

That this division has weakened the democratic
forces is quite obvious. The reasons that made
unity among the parties professing adherence to
representative rule impossible are now less
important than the need to guard against the
possibility of the rift continuing into the
post-election period. Nobody should ignore the
danger that those who come out on top in the
election, howsoever it is conducted, or whoever
are chosen by the establishment to lend it a
democratic façade, may not be able to force the
people’s agenda on their more powerful partners.

If that happens, those in assemblies and those
outside will exhaust themselves fighting one
another and thereby give a new lease of life to
the autocracy that they should be fighting
unitedly. Is it possible to ensure that after the
polls the two camps will be able to jointly work
for the restoration of democracy? Can the civil
society elements out in the field - lawyers,
media people, students - accomplish this?

The task has been made harder by the failure of
political parties to nourish democratic ideals
through regular contact with the masses during
periods between elections. Lack of organised
cadres has been the single most important cause
of division on the boycott issue.

This is the fatal flaw in national politics that
has enabled one authoritarian regime after
another to make a mockery of civilised
governance. And this is the truth the events of
2007 have laid bare, for what happened on Nov 3
constituted the greatest assault ever on the
Pakistani people’s democratic rights. Now the
restitution of the rights of the judiciary has
been pushed to the top of the country’s agenda.

For more than 50 years political parties have
tried to hide their lack of public support by
shifting the responsibility of guarding democracy
entirely to the judiciary. All parties, small
ones as well as those that supposedly constitute
the mainstream, have expected the courts to save
them from the consequences of their sloth, lack
of conviction and alienation from the people. And
when, some months ago, the judiciary chose to
fulfil its constitutional duty they were quick to
assume that democracy had finally triumphed. It

The reality the political parties faced in
November last was that they had exaggerated the
role of the judiciary in enabling authoritarian
regimes to stay in power as long as they did and
to do whatever they had chosen to do, and that it
was time they accepted the challenge of resisting
autocracy, a challenge they could not pass on to
any other institution or body of people.

The unity of pro-democracy forces the country
needs will hinge on an understanding on the
restoration of the judiciary to its pre-November
2007 status.

Unfortunately, some of the major players are
reluctant to accept this formulation. The reasons
vary from party to party. Some find it hard to
overcome their subjective responses to the
judiciary’s past performance while some others
have consciously or unconsciously accepted the
theory that the courts have been harrying the
knights engaged in saving the world from
terrorists. This complaint is similar to
inefficient prosecutors’ protests at courts’
refusal to convict the accused without evidence
and both grievances merit summary dismissal. The
case for taking a stand on the restoration of the
judiciary, on the other hand, can easily be
summed up.

The mess one notices all around is largely due to
the executive’s acts of omission and commission.
It cannot possibly disown responsibility for
first promoting militancy and then making a hash
of the campaign to overcome it. It is also
responsible for inviting judicial activism by
neglecting its normal duties to the people. There
would have been no need for the courts to
reprimand the establishment’s privileged knights
if the administration had rendered to the people
what was due to them, if the police and security
agencies had functioned within the law, if women
had been protected from feudal brutality, and if
bonded haris had been recognised as human beings.

The November attack on the judiciary has resulted
in freeing a manifestly incompetent executive of
any semblance of accountability. The consequences
to the people are too grim to be ignored. Fears
of an increase in police excesses and abuse of
law to suit a predatory executive’s convenience
are not unfounded. The restoration of the
judiciary is necessary to repair the
accountability bar to the executive’s actions
that has wantonly been destroyed. The undoing of
a wrong done to some justices is less important
than the need to free the judiciary of its fears
of an executive that recognises no limits to its

More importantly, the people have been eagerly
looking for means to make the polity immune to
relapsing into absolute rule by the military
after each spell of limited and strictly
regulated representative governance. Progress
towards this end demands, among other things,
that elected representatives should be able to
roll back the extra-democratic measures of
authoritarian regimes. The idea is not unknown to
students of Pakistan’s politics. The movement
against Ayub Khan was aimed at ridding the
country of the anti-democratic assumptions
underlying the system of Basic Democracies and
the so-called constitution of 1962. Similarly the
prolonged agitation against the eighth amendment
of Gen Zia was directed at demolishing
institutionalised encroachments on democratic

Now a large part of the population believes
Pakistan will not be able to negotiate the crisis
of the state unless the Nov 3 measures are
expeditiously rolled back. Restoration of the
judiciary is thus essential as the first step
towards ensuring protection against any
disruption of the constitutional order in future.

The people will forgive the boycott generals for
challenging autocracy without gathering any
soldiers behind them and the election-wallas
their haste in coming to the executive’s rescue
if they do not lose sight of the fact that the
long-term survival of both depends on fighting
for justice for the judiciary.


* From Dawn, 27 December 2007. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | December 26-28, 2007 | Dispatch No. 2481 - Year 10 running.

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