Posts Tagged ‘ President Asif Ali Zardari ’

The Problem with Pakistan’s Democracy

By Farahnaz Ispahani for Foreign Policy

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On Sunday, former military dictator Pervez Musharraf was at last given permission to run in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 11, but only in the northern district of Chitral. Two other districts rejected his nomination papers, and his application in Islamabad is still pending. Elections officials in Pakistan, acting under directives of the country’s Supreme Court, have excluded several candidates — among them Musharraf — from running in the elections. This pre-selection of candidates is based on controversial Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, decreed by military ruler General Zia ul-Haq in 1985 as part of his Islamization agenda. These articles forbid anyone who does not meet the test of being a good Muslim or patriotic Pakistani from becoming members of Pakistan’s parliament. Until now, the highly subjective criteria of these provisions have never been implemented in practice.

This time around, the Election Commission of Pakistan has allowed officials in each parliamentary district to vet candidates. The result is a mish-mash of arbitrary decisions. Almost 100 members of the out-going legislatures, many of them deemed popular enough to win re-election, have been disqualified for producing fake college degrees at the last poll, when the generals mandated the possession of one as a pre-condition for membership in parliament. The law was changed by parliament in 2008 and it is questionable why, after serving for five years, these politicians are being challenged now.

Former Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was disqualified on grounds of unproven corruption allegations. Musharraf was barred from running in two districts while being found sufficiently sagacious in another. The leader of the opposition in the outgoing parliament, Chaudhry Nisar Ali, was similarly found to be lacking in the criteria in one district where he filed his nomination papers, while being allowed to run in another.

The last few days have witnessed the spectacle of Election Officers asking candidates to recite specific verses from the Quran, prove that they pray five times a day, and in the case of a female candidate, even respond to the question “How can you be a good mother if you serve in parliament and are too busy to be fulfill your religious duties as a wife and mother?”

The pre-qualification conditions have adversely affected liberal candidates while favoring Islamist ones. Columnist Ayaz Amir, who is part of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, has been disqualified from running as a candidate because he wrote articles that were “disparaging” about the ‘ideology’ of Pakistan. Militant and terrorist leaders have had no problem in meeting the litmus test of religiosity and commitment to Pakistan’s ideology. Nomination papers for Maulana Mohammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, who heads Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a reincarnation of a banned terrorist organization, were cleared even though he has publicly acknowledged his role in the killing of Shias in the country.

In addition to facing discrimination from election officials, liberal politicians must also contend with threats from terrorists – threats that have not persuaded the judiciary or the permanent state apparatus to enhance security for these politicians. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has warned that candidates and rallies of ‘secular’ parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and Awami National Party (ANP) would be targeted, and the targeting has already begun. The ANP lost one of its finest leaders, Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a few months ago. The TTP took credit for the murder.

The elimination of liberal political figures must be seen as part of the process of creeping Islamization, as well as the permanent militarization of Pakistan, which began during Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship. Using Islam and a narrow definition of patriotism to limit the options available to voters is nothing new. It is a direct outcome of Pakistan’s long history of dominance by unelected institutions of state, euphemistically referred to as the ‘establishment.’ In addition to existing under direct military rule for half its life as an independent country, Pakistan has always lived in the shadow of the ubiquitous influence of generals, judges, and civil servants.

No elected parliament was ever allowed to complete its full term until this year. But instead of allowing voters to choose the new government in a free and fair election, the establishment wants to make sure that the voters have only limited choice at the polls. A direct military coup is no longer feasible. The politicians, led by President Asif Zardari, have foiled bids by the judiciary to virtually become the executive. The battle between elected leaders and unelected judges has come at great cost to several outspoken individuals in the country’s politics. Now, an election with pre-qualification could ensure the establishment’s supremacy without overtly pulling back the democratic façade.

From the establishment’s perspective, Pakistan’s politicians cannot be trusted to lead or run the country even if they manage to get elected by popular vote. The political system must somehow be controlled, guided, or managed by the unelected institutions who deem themselves morally superior and even more patriotic than those supported by the electorate. This patrician approach is reflected in the assertions of Generals Ayub Khan (1958-69), Yahya Khan (1969-71), Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) and Musharraf (1999-2008) at the time they took power in coups d’état. It can also be found in the constant efforts by Supreme Court judges and civil servants to second-guess the people by deciding who is and who is not eligible to run in elections.

General Zia ul-Haq created structures for limiting democracy that would outlast him. He drastically changed the constitution and legal regime in ways that have proved difficult to reverse, even a quarter century after his death. The outgoing Pakistani parliament completed its term and amended the constitution to make it closer to what it was originally intended to be. But the Islamic provisions introduced by Zia ul-Haq persist, enabling the establishment to use Islam as an instrument of control and influence over the body politic.

Article 62 demands that a candidate for parliament demonstrate that “he is of good character and is not commonly known as one who violates Islamic Injunctions; he has adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practices obligatory duties prescribed by Islam as well as abstains from major sins; he is sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and ameen, there being no declaration to the contrary by a court of law; and that he has not, after the establishment of Pakistan, worked against the integrity of the country or opposed the ideology of Pakistan.”

Article 63 disqualifies a Pakistani from becoming an MP if “he has been convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction for propagating any opinion, or acting in any manner, prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan, or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or morality, or the maintenance of public order, or the integrity or independence of the judiciary of Pakistan, or which defames or brings into ridicule the judiciary or the Armed Forces of Pakistan.”

Both constitutional provisions provide considerable leeway to an ideological judiciary to influence the electoral process and exclude critics of the establishment from the next legislature. The recent celebration and positive commentary over parliament completing its term should not distract us from an ugly reality. Pakistan’s establishment may have refrained from another direct coup, but it is still far from accepting the basic premise of democracy – the supremacy of parliament among institutions and the right of the people to vote for whomever they choose.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of the Pakistani parliament and former Media Advisor to President Asif Ali Zardari, as well as a writer and minority rights advocate.

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Pakistan Prepares For Election

By Farhan Bokhari in Lahore and Victor Mallet in New Delhi for The Financial Times

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Pakistan’s government stepped down at the weekend after a full five-year term, paving the way for an election and change of administration that would be the country’s first constitutional democratic handover since independence and partition from India in 1947.

“It is true that in the past five years we have not been able to make rivers of milk and honey flow in the country,” said Raja Pervez Ashraf, prime minister in the Pakistan People’s party (PPP) government of President Asif Ali Zardari, in a televised farewell speech.

“We have used all our resources to strengthen the foundations of democracy and – by the grace of God – today democracy is so strong that no one will dare to dislodge it in the future.”

The PPP and its leader Mr Zardari, who was elected after his wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, claim credit for strengthening democracy in a country that has been ruled for long periods by the armed forces – most recently under General Pervez Musharraf in the decade up to 2008.

But the government’s popularity has collapsed during its time in office, undermined by bombings and the killing of civilians by the Pakistan Taliban, and by power shortages and other economic problems.

Even the process leading to a change of government is deadlocked, with mainstream politicians so far unable to agree on a caretaker prime minister to run the country for up to 90 days, and to oversee the general election. Among the possible candidates for the position are Ishrat Hussain, a former central bank governor and World Bank official, and Nasir Aslam Zahid, a former judge.

“The immaturity of our democracy is nowhere more evident than in the failure to agree on a way forward,” said one politician from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). “This decision should have been made weeks ago and we still seem to be haggling over it.”

Pakistanis mostly welcomed the completion of the government’s term – a feat that had sometimes seemed in doubt – but criticised Mr Zardari’s inability to curb extremist violence or to start restoring the economy to health.

In a recent incident on March 9, Muslim zealots in Lahore burnt down 178 homes belonging to Christians – a tiny and poverty-stricken minority in Pakistan – following the arrest of a young Christian man on blasphemy charges. More than 250 Shia Muslims have been killed this year in attacks blamed on militant Sunnis.

Senior officials have also been murdered during the government’s term. They include Salman Taseer, governor of the populous Punjab province, killed by one of his police guards after Mr Taseer publicly defended Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman arrested in another blasphemy case.

“It would be utterly crazy to celebrate this coming of age of democracy,” said Nadeem Masih, a Christian office worker in Lahore. “The government has left more Pakistanis insecure than when it came to office.”

Investors are equally sceptical, noting the fall in the value of the Pakistani rupee and the state of most of the country’s infrastructure. “The economy is in shambles, there is more corruption and cronyism,” said one businessman from Karachi, who asked not to be named. “Should we still celebrate this democracy?”

Western diplomats say one reason why Pakistan might be able to keep its democracy alive is the refusal thus far by General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the army chief, to seize power in response to calls from some of the government’s opponents.

“General Kayani has played a very sobering role,” said one diplomat in Islamabad. “He has remained true to his promise of letting democracy flourish in Pakistan.”

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political commentator, said it was a success for the government to have lasted five years. “But the government has left behind more problems for Pakistan than they inherited. Maybe the hope is that we will evolve into a more stable democracy in the long term, but that’s still on the distant horizon.”

Pakistani President Chooses Party Stalwart as New Premier

By Salman Masood for The New York Times

President Asif Ali Zardari has chosen a party stalwart, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, to replace the ousted prime minister, Pakistani news media reported late Wednesday.

Mr. Shahabuddin, who was serving as textiles minister when the Supreme Court dismissed Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and broke up the cabinet on Tuesday, will file his nomination papers before the election commission on Thursday. Khurshid Shah, a senior leader of the governing Pakistan Peoples Party, said a special session of the National Assembly would be held Friday for a confirmation vote.

The nomination of Mr. Shahabuddin came after hours of negotiations between party officials and the other members of its governing coalition. Officials said he was Mr. Zardari’s first choice, but he faced mild resistance during a meeting at the president’s house on Wednesday afternoon.

Mr. Shahabuddin belongs to an influential family from the southern part of Punjab Province, which has been a stronghold of the Pakistan Peoples Party. He has held several positions, including deputy finance minister in the early 1990s. He was considered close to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The country’s economy, militants in the tribal badlands and troubled relations with the United States over reopening NATO supply lines would be among the issues facing him if he was confirmed. But he may face another challenge by the Supreme Court, which has been pushing the ruling government to reopen a Swiss corruption investigation against Mr. Zardari. Mr. Gilani’s refusal to do so led to contempt charges and his dismissal.

Most analysts expect Mr. Shahabuddin would fight such pressure, as Mr. Gilani did.

Raza Rumi, the policy director of the Jinnah Institute, a research group in Islamabad, said that the nomination of Mr. Shahabuddin indicated continuation of the governing party’s policies. “Mr. Shahabuddin is an experienced parliamentarian, but he will face a tough choice to balance loyalty to the president and deal with an assertive court and a restive opposition,” he said.

Political Instability Rises as Pakistani Court Ousts Premier

As Reported by Delcan Welsh for The New York Times

The Supreme Court dismissed Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Tuesday, drastically escalating a confrontation between the government and the judiciary and plunging the political system into turmoil.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry declared that Mr. Gilani’s office had been effectively vacant since April 26 when the court convicted him on contempt charges because he refused to pursue a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari, his superior.

Although the decision is unlikely to topple the government, many viewed it as the product of a grudge-driven tussle between Mr. Zardari and Justice Chaudhry, with the prime minister caught in the middle.

“The court has been gunning for the prime minister for a long time,” said Najam Sethi, a veteran political analyst. “Clearly there is a lot of politics in this.”

The order left Pakistan in a state of constitutional uncertainty, with the cabinet effectively dismissed. The court instructed Mr. Zardari to “ensure continuation of the democratic process” — words widely interpreted as an order to arrange the election of a new prime minister.

Legal experts said Mr. Gilani could not appeal the decision but that he may continue in an interim role until a successor is chosen. It was unclear what impact the decision would have on troubled negotiations with the United States to reopen NATO supply lines through Pakistan into Afghanistan.

As word of the ruling spread, Pakistanis held their breath for reaction from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, whose top leaders held an emergency session at Mr. Zardari’s house. Television stations reported that the party had agreed in principle to accept the court’s ruling, but a final decision was not expected until later Tuesday.

Shahbaz Sharif, a senior leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N Party, which instigated the court action, hailed the decision. “It upholds the supremacy of the law and the Constitution,” Mr. Sharif said.

But it calls into question the validity of all executive decisions made since April 26, including the passing of the federal budget. One commentator said it “opened a massive legal can of worms.”

Speculation swirled about the identity of a replacement prime minister; among the names circulating were those of the foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, and various stalwarts from the party’s electoral heartland in Sindh Province and southern Punjab.

Any candidate, however, will need the approval of the P.P.P.’s coalition partners — smaller, ethnically centered parties based in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, who are likely to seek fresh concessions from Mr. Zardari in exchange for their votes in Parliament.

The court decision advanced the likelihood that general elections, scheduled to take place by next spring, could be brought forward.

Equally, however, Mr. Zardari may wish to first resolve some of the governance failures that have marred his government’s reputation, notably widespread power outages and system failures that have continued for years. The court decision coincided with street agitation in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, where rioters burned buildings and clashed with police in several cities on Monday and Tuesday to protest power outages.

“Law has become subservient to politics, but this government had it coming. It has been singularly inept,” said Mr. Sethi, the analyst. “They had six months to anticipate the power crisis, and now it is upon them.”

In dismissing Mr. Gilani, the court chose the strongest option. It could have referred Mr. Gilani’s case to the Election Commission of Pakistan, which could have taken up to three months to adjudicate the case.

It comes at the end of a tumultuous week for the court itself. Last week, a billionaire businessman made explosive accusations in court and in the media that he had given $3.7 million in kickbacks to Justice Chaudhry’s son in order to swing several cases his way. The furor over those accusations, centered on the judge’s son, Arsalan Iftikhar, is now likely to fade as the country grapples with its latest political crisis.

Mr. Gilani’s dismissal stems from longstanding demands by the court that Mr. Gilani write a letter to the authorities in Switzerland to seek to reopen a dormant corruption investigation into Mr. Zardari’s finances that started in the 1990s.

Mr. Gilani refused, arguing that he was unable to do so because the president enjoyed immunity from prosecution. And the prime minister signaled long ago that he was ready to be dismissed or face prison in the case.

After Mr. Gilani was convicted on contempt charges on April 26, the speaker of Parliament examined calls for his dismissal from public office. The court intervened after the speaker, who is a member of the ruling party, ruled that Mr. Gilani should not be dismissed.

“What will happen to independence of judiciary if speaker or Parliament tries to scrutinize judicial rulings?” Justice Chaudhry said on Tuesday. “No one can undo a court verdict except a court of appeals.”

Pakistan Supreme Court Convicts Prime Minister

As Reported by The Los Angeles Times

Pakistan’s Supreme Court convicted Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Thursday of contempt for failing to revive a long-standing graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari, a ruling that could eventually result in the premier’s ouster and ramp up political tension in an important but troubled U.S. ally.

The court opted not to sentence Gilani to a maximum six months in prison. However, under Pakistani law, a conviction could entail disqualification from the office he has held since 2008.

The verdict comes at a time when the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, stewarded by Zardari and Gilani, is especially vulnerable. As elections approach, the party faces a public intensely dissatisfied with its performance on issues such as a stagnant economy and crippling power shortages.

Within hours of the ruling, handed down by a seven-judge panel, opposition leaders called for Gilani’s resignation.

“He should step down without causing further crisis,” former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Peoples Party’s archrival Pakistan Muslim League-N, told a Pakistani television channel. “The prime minister himself invited this situation.”

But members of Gilani’s team suggested the Pakistan Peoples Party would defend his right to stay in office. Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira called the ruling “a very unfortunate day for this country and for democracy,” but said the court’s ruling did not explicitly call for Gilani’s disqualification as prime minister.

Ultimately, Zardari and other party leaders will have to weigh the benefits of staving off Gilani’s removal from office through legal and legislative maneuvers against the political damage that could come with trying to keep him at the helm of government.

“Essentially, it will go to the court of public opinion,” said Cyril Almeida, a leading columnist for Dawn, an English-language Pakistani newspaper. “The media and political opposition will say you have a prime minister convicted, so morally he should not stay on as prime minister. … What might happen is someone might petition the Supreme Court, saying, ‘This is your order, so please disqualify the prime minister.’ That seems likely to be the next step.”

The contempt conviction stems from a case in Switzerland in which Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were convicted in absentia in 2003. The couple were charged with taking kickbacks from Swiss companies during Bhutto’s rule in the 1990s. They appealed, and the case was dropped in 2008 at the request of the Pakistani government.

Since 2009, the Supreme Court has repeatedly demanded that Gilani’s government write a letter to Swiss authorities asking that the case be revived. Gilani refused, contending that, as president, Zardari has constitutional immunity from prosecution.

More than 120 Pakistani Soldiers Lie Dead in the Snow for Nothing

By Mohammed Hanif for The Guardian

Two months before President Asif Zardari’s unexpected visit to India, a newly formed political alliance, the Council to Defend Pakistan, unveiled its slogan. “What is our relationship with India?” it asked. And then in a rickety Urdu rhyme it answered: of hatred, of revenge.

The council is an alliance between recovering jihadists, some one-person political parties and the kind of sectarian organisations whose declared aim is that Pakistan cannot fulfil its destiny until every single Shia has been killed or expelled from the country.

The council is not likely to have much impact on Pakistan’s electoral politics, but it is a clear reminder that there are strong forces within the country, which want a return to the days when India was Pakistan’s enemy No 1. Back then all you had to do to malign a Pakistani politician was to somehow prove that they were soft on India. Things have changed. When President Zardari went to India, his bitter political enemy and the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif welcomed the visit.

President Zardari’s visit on the one hand was a reminder that India is right next door. If you plan carefully, you can do a day trip, have lunch, visit a shrine and make the correct, polite noises that visitors make about their future intentions.

But the president’s visit was also set against a reminder that India and Pakistan have raised their animosity to a brutal art form. As the president’s plane landed in Delhi, rescue workers were trying to reach the Siachen glacier, where more than 120 Pakistani soldiers had been buried after an avalanche obliterated their military post. Siachen is often proclaimed the world’s highest battlefront – as if it’s a Guinness world record and not a monument to our mutual stupidity. As I write this, not a single survivor or body has been found. India offered help in rescue efforts. Pakistan politely declined, because that would compromise its military posts.

President Zardari’s visit was billed as a private one, but the pageantry surrounding it was state-visit like, complete with dozens of cameras broadcasting empty skies where the presidential plane was about to appear. And, of course, the media had scooped the menu for the state lunch a day in advance.

Did the visit achieve anything? An 80-year-old Pakistani prisoner in an Indian jail was released on bail. The leaders’ sons and probable heirs – Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Rahul Gandhi – got to hang out.

There are peaceniks on both sides who have held endless candlelit vigils on the borders. They would like the borders to melt away, for all of us to come together in a giant hug and live happily ever after just like we did in a mythical past when we were all either little Gandhis or sufis and got along fine. There is another minority on both sides that would like us to live permanently in the nightmare that was partition. There are Pakistani groups who want to raise the green flag over the Red Fort in Delhi, and there are Indian hawks who go to sleep thinking of new ways to teach this pesky little country a lesson. But the vast majority – and given the size of population and ethnic diversity, that majority is really vast – would just be happy with cheaper onions from across the border.

There is another kind of coming together: Pakistani writers and artists can attend both Indian and Pakistani literary festivals and art expos, and although it’s great that they can peddle their wares to a curious audience, the rest of the population are denied that privilege. A Punjabi farmer, for example, can’t sell his often perishable produce in India, a couple of hours away, but is forced to transport it a thousand miles to southern Pakistan. If India and Pakistan could take tiny steps which weren’t just meant for the rulers and cultural tourists, it might make some difference. For instance, if there were only a couple of thousand Pakistani and Indian students studying in each others’ countries, the appetite for a war rhetoric might wane. At the moment it can’t happen because the security establishment fear infiltration. The same establishment forget that infiltrators usually don’t apply for a visa, and no suspects so far have been to an IT school in Bangalore or an arts college in Lahore.

I mention education because one in 10 children who doesn’t go to school lives in Pakistan. One in three children in the world who is malnourished lives in India. And these countries insist on sending young men to a frontline where there is no war, where there is nothing to fight over, and where 4,000 soldiers have died, mostly because it’s just too cold. Tens of thousands return with serious mental ailments because it’s so lonely and depressing. Twenty three years ago a withdrawal agreement had been agreed upon, but according to Indian defence analyst Srikant Rao, the then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi backed out because withdrawing troops wouldn’t look very good in pictures. Well, troops buried under miles of snow don’t look very good either.

If India and Pakistan can’t leave each other alone, they should at least leave those mountains alone.

Pakistani Prime Minister Due in Court For Contempt Hearing

As Reported by CNN

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan is due to appear Monday before the country’s Supreme Court, which plans to charge him with contempt in relation to a long-running struggle over old corruption cases.

Gilani is locked in a standoff with the Supreme Court justices, who are demanding that he ask the Swiss authorities to revive corruption charges from the previous decade against President Asif Ali Zardari and others.

Gilani has refused the court’s demands and could be jailed for six months if the justices find him in contempt. The court on Friday rejected an appeal by Gilani’s lawyers against the summons to face the contempt charge.

The lawyers have argued that the prime minister has not followed the court’s order because Zardari enjoys immunity in Pakistan and abroad as a president in office.

Gilani said in an interview over the weekend with the satellite news network Al Jazeera that he had an “extremely capable” lawyer and didn’t believe the court would jail him on the contempt charges.

If found guilty of contempt, the prime minister could be forced from office. But his lawyers have said he would keep his position unless electoral officials disqualified him.

Gilani served more than five years in prison between 2001 and 2006 on corruption charges brought by the previous military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf — counts he said were also politically motivated.

The corruption cases that the Supreme Court now wants reopened stem from money-laundering charges against Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. A Swiss court convicted them in absentia in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars.

After Musharraf granted a controversial amnesty in 2007 to Zardari, Bhutto, and thousands of other politicians and bureaucrats, Pakistan asked the Swiss authorities to drop the case. In 2009, the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled the amnesty was unconstitutional and called on the government to take steps to have the cases reopened.

The government has not done so, and the court apparently lost patience. Since Gilani is the head of the government, the court justices view him as responsible.

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