The looming clouds of emergency?
Anil Kalhan wonders if Pakistan's president will use unrest and violence as an excuse to tighten his grip on power
Friday, May 18, 2007
Last weekend's bout of political violence in Karachi -- the worst the city has seen in years -- culminated a tumultuous week in which the stakes escalated sharply in the conflict between Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and supporters of now the "non-functional" Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. With Musharraf and his allies clamping down on political opponents, interfering with freedom of the press, and raising the specter of a state of emergency, the prospects for the return of Pakistani democracy may hang in the balance.
The week began with Musharraf accusing Chaudhry's supporters in the Pakistani legal community of "trying to give political colour to a judicial issue," echoing a charge that he has made repeatedly since protests erupted over his decision to suspend the Chief Justice back in March. Musharraf warned "that [the protesters] would not succeed in their designs" and again defended his decision to suspend Chaudhry.
Nevertheless, the same day, tens of thousands of Chaudhry's supporters rallied in support of Chaudhry's motorcade as it proceeded through towns along the Grand Trunk Road from Islamabad to Lahore -- a four-hour trip that took Chaudhry and his procession approximately twenty-six. "Nations and states which are based on dictatorship instead of the supremacy of the constitution, the rule of law and protection of basic rights get destroyed," Chaudhry told lawyers during a speech in Lahore.
Far from idly standing by, Musharraf's government blacked out news coverage of the demonstrations and arrested a number of activists in advance of Chaudhry's procession to Lahore. In response to the demonstrations, Musharraf's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank executive in New York, warned that the government reserved the option under the Pakistan Constitution to declare a state of emergency. He also warned the media to "use its press freedom with responsibility" and "avoid inappropriate reporting."
With the political rhetoric over the Chaudhry affair escalating, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, before which Musharraf's allegations against Chaudhry are pending, on May 9 reiterated its prohibition of any "discussions, comments or write ups which may interfere with the legal process, or ridicule, scandalize or malign the Court or any of its Judges" or "touching the merits" of the pending case against Chaudhry, warning that violators would be punished for contempt of court.
That same day in Karachi, government officials sealed the law office of Munir Malik, President of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association and one of the lawyers defending Chaudhry. While the Sindh High Court ordered Malik's office unsealed within hours, the next day unidentified gunmen fired several shots into Malik's home.
Leaving to one side the merits of the charges against Chaudhry, about which I have nothing to say, Musharraf's repeated attempts to draw a line between politics and law in the Chaudhry case -- and at that, to do so in the course of his own political speeches and press conferences -- seem a bit naive at best, since Musharraf himself seems to have intertwined the case with politics from the start. With elections set for the end of this year, Musharraf has been maneuvering for a way to remain President while retaining his post as Chief of Army Staff, in violation of the Pakistan Constitution. Musharraf already violated his own promise to give up either his post as Army Chief or his civilian post as President by December 2004, and in a bid to hold onto both posts even after the fall elections, Musharraf has floated the notion that the current, military-backed parliament might vote for him to continue as President in advance of new elections -- a proposal that legal analysts have sharply criticized. Analysts have also suggested that Musharraf's move to sideline Chaudhry may well have been intended as a preemptive measure, to ensure that a more pliable Supreme Court of Pakistan would acquiesce to his desire to hold on to power should any legal disputes over his extraconstitutional wrangling to hold onto power be presented to them.
Given the manner in which Musharraf and Aziz initially handled the referral of the case back in March, as summarized in a preliminary report released on Tuesday by the International Bar Association, the Chaudhry affair has been highly politicized from the outset. And clearly, the case has touched a nerve implicating issues bigger than anything to do with Chaudhry himself. Given the Supreme Court's gag order, the cabinet has even now asked Musharraf and other government officials to stop talking about the case.
In this context, Aziz's talk of emergency is particularly ominous, evoking not only earlier moments in Pakistani history but also the notorious emergency declared in India in the 1970s. Facing growing political opposition and an unfavorable judicial decision that would have tossed her from office, Indira Gandhi instead tossed Indian democracy itself aside, manipulating constitutional provisions authorizing the declaration of emergency to suspend fundamental rights, censor news coverage, detain tens of thousands of political opponents and others, and effectively rule by decree.
Pakistan seems to be facing a similar moment today. A state of emergency could provide a convenient pretext for Musharraf to postpone elections, suspend fundamental rights and prolong his hold on power. At the same time, given the depth of political opposition that the Chaudhry affair has exposed, one has to cringe at the thought of what it might take for the Pakistan Army to meaningfully enforce any declaration of emergency.
To date, the political crisis arising from the effort to sack Chaudhry has presented little basis for even a pretextual declaration of emergency. For over two months, Chaudhry's supporters have organized massive demonstrations protesting his suspension, but even as the anti-Musharraf demonstrations have intensified, those protests have remained entirely peaceful until this past weekend. In the wake of the weekend violence in Karachi, which forced Chaudhry to cancel his scheduled speech and return to Islamabad, the political crisis in Pakistan seems to have entered a new, more contentious phase, as evidence emerges that the police stood by silently in the face of violence that may have been deliberately provoked by the government and its allies.
For now, Musharraf has denied any intent to declare an emergency, but as political opposition intensifies, will the coming weeks provide him with a convenient excuse to do so? And even if no formal emergency is declared, will Musharraf find some other gambit to tighten his grip on power? And what are U.S. diplomats saying to Pakistani officials behind closed doors? In the words of the Faiz Ahmed Faiz ghazal that has been much quoted in connection with this week's events -- by both by Chaudhry's supporters and other observers -- "hum dekhenge," or "we shall see."
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 5/18/2007