Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mass Resignations: Pakistani Cabinet Split Over Rule Of Law

In Pakistan, the opposition party PML-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif [photo], has resigned its seats in the cabinet. This dramatic move shows enormous strain in the "coalition" government elected in February of this year.

The "coalition" is led by the PPP, which was led by Benazir Bhutto until her assassination last December, and which is now effectively in the hands of her widow, Asif Ali Zardari, although it is nominally led by their teenaged son, Bilawal "Bhutto" Zardari, who is currently in England seeking an undergrad degree.

At issue is the status of the Pakistani judiciary; Sharif and the PML-N have consistently stated that their top priority is the reinstatement of all the judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf when he declared a state of emergency in November.

Asif Zardari and the PPP have talked about re-establishing an independent judiciary but they have thrown one roadblock after another in the way of their proclaimed goal, and in this respect their actions have spoken much louder than their words. In my view, it was only a matter of time before Nawaz Sharif -- who has seemed to see through this charade ever since it began -- obtained enough political support to make this break with the so-called "coalition".

The PML-N have not resigned their seats in parliament, so the government remains in power, although with nine of 24 cabinet positions vacant (including Finance), it doesn't seem as though the government will be able to function much, or at all. In short, the situation is very unstable at the moment.

The problem, from Zardari's point of view, is that a reinstatement of the sacked judges would put the Supreme Court back the way it was prior to the declaration of emergency: in particular, Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry would once again be Chief Justice. And Chaudhry, as Jane Perlez of the New York Times puts it, is a "maverick".

Perlez describes Chaudhry as a "country judge from Baluchistan" whose independence threatens the policies of George W. Bush and terror war "ally", Pervez Musharraf. The problem -- although Perlez does not and never will say so -- is that Bush and Musharraf are committed to the destruction of the rule of law, and Chaudhry, the maverick country lawyer from Baluchistan, is committed to upholding it.

Thus, any reinstatement of the Pakistani judiciary would put at risk not only the continuing tenure in office of President Musharraf, but also Pakistan's status as an ally of the United States in the so-called "Global War on Terror".

As long-time readers of this space may recall, President Musharraf was "re-elected" last October in a comic farce that clearly violated at least two (and maybe three) different laws.

Musharraf should not even have been eligible, since he was a General -- and Army Chief of Staff -- at the time. According to Pakistani law, one may only hold one office at a time; you cannot be both a soldier and an elected official at the same time, let alone Chief of Staff and President. For that matter, Musharraf's tenure in office has been illegal ever since he siezed power in a military coup in 1999. And the fact that he resigned his commission after his October "re-election" does nothing to satisfy the law he broke by running for office.

Furthermore, in Pakistan the President is elected by the members of the national Parliament and the provincial Legislative Assemblies. This is supposed to happen just after each new Parliament is elected; they then elect the President who will serve with them during their term in office. But for this cycle, Musharraf revised the timetable, scheduling the Presidential election for October 2007 and the Parliamentary election for January 2008, so that he could be "re-elected" by the same Parliament which had "elected" him in the first place. (The Parliamentary election scheduled for January was postponed to February following the assassination of PPP leader Benazir Bhutto.)

There's also a question of term limits. In Pakistan, as in the US, no President may serve more than two consecutive terms. Musharraf and his supporters claimed that his first term -- from when he siezed power in 1999 to when he arranged to be "elected" in 2003 -- was not a term at all, since he wasn't elected then. But those who oppose Musharraf have a different view.

The previous Parliamentary election was widely seen as rigged. And the notion that the same group of falsely elected Parliamentarians should be able to "re-elect" a military dictator to his third term as President seems exceptionally offensive to those who favor the rule of law. As I've been saying, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is one of those people. Just before he was sacked, the Supreme Court announced that it was preparing to rule on petitions challenging Musharraf's "re-election". And the ruling was not likely to be favorable to the President -- this is why he declared the state of emergency and sacked the judges. So it seems quite likely that if Chaudhry were reinstated, Musharraf's presidency -- and the changes he made when declaring the emergency -- would soon be declared illegitimate.

This is not the first time Iftikhar Chaudhry has been a thorn in the sides of Bush, Musharraf and the GWOT. He was dismissed from his position amid a flurry of unsubstantiated allegations in March of 2007, after he supported the families of hundreds of people who have been "disappeared" by the Pakistani law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.

He was later reinstated after a large public show of support, but he didn't stay in office very long. "He's a threat to the GWOT," they said. And he still is.

Meanwhile, the PPP continue to play the role of faux-opposition, with Zardari apparently taking instuctions from the Americans who come to visit him every time he comes too close to supporting the rule of law or the much-ballyhooed "transition to democracy" which was supposedly represented by Musharraf's "doffing the uniform" and by Benazir Bhutto's return to the country to lead the "opposition".

In fact Buhtto's return was predicated on the proclamation of a "reconciliation order", which granted her amnsety from the corruption charges which had kept her out of Pakistan for most of the previous decade. Not wishing to show undue favoritism, the presidential order granted unconditional amnesty to many present and former government officials, effectively ending any hope of any Pakistani government official ever being held accountable for anything. Iftikhar Chaudhry might have a maverick opinion about this, as well. But we don't know much about what he thinks, because he's been under house arrest and incommunicado most of the time since November.

Meanwhile, in return for the amnesty -- and for the chance for another turn in power -- Bhutto agreed to keep the PPP in their seats last October for Musharraf's farcical "re-election". So the PPP abstained rather than resigning in protest, like the other opposition parties did.

If everyone had resigned except Musharraf's party, the PML-Q, the "re-election" would have been much more difficult to portray as "democratic". But with the most powerful opposition party on board, it was easy for the media to portray the dissenters as crackpots who just don't appreciate the wisdom of sacrificing the entire legal basis of our civilization so that a few corrupt criminal politicians can wage a bogus war without borders, killing millions of people, destroying one country after another, and making a fortune for themselves and their backers.