Wednesday, June 18

THE CLEARING FOG

By Cyril Almeida


THE Asif-Musharraf axis has won; the warrior judge has lost; and the black coat will not go down in history as a symbol of revolution. The transition is back on, and the country is better off for it.

We now know how the judicial crisis will end: the PCO judges will stay; Chief Justice (CJ) Iftikhar's powers and tenure will be cropped; and Dogar will be CJ again one day. It's been Asif's roadmap for a while now, but he hadn't figured out how to get his partners to compromise. Turns out they had no real stomach for confrontation.

Nawaz is the media's latest darling, delighting them with his fulminations against Musharraf. But the significance of his sound and fury was lost on many. By refusing to send his workers over the
barricades and the coalition government into oblivion, Nawaz demonstrated a degree of political maturity many doubted he had. Sure, he will continue to try and prise Musharraf away from the presidency, but a bright red line has been drawn – political rhetoric aside, the fate of the president will not be decided by the street.

Legend has it that Governor Jilani, Zia's henchman in Punjab, went to the Sharif household in search of an adoptive son of the army, a figure who would become the civilian facade of the military establishment. The governor wanted the younger, more capable Sharif brother, but 'Abbaji' offered Nawaz instead. The country suffered the foolishness of that decision for a quarter of a century as a lethal combination of dullness and ego reduced national politics to a zero sum game. Until last weekend. Nawaz is clearly obsessed with removing Musharraf but by stopping short of hijacking the long march as a vehicle to finish the job, he signalled a new pragmatism.

Structural ambivalence is the new game in Islamabad. The N-League will keep its foot on the president's neck even as it learns to live with an Asif-Musharraf axis. It's a messy arrangement, but Asif must be happy. His perma-grin could only have widened as the marchers dispersed peacefully. After the Bhurban gamble failed, Asif must have wondered if his government's last rites would be read on Parade Avenue. Instead, things have moved back inside the relatively sober walls of parliament where the numbers are in his favour.

Pakistan being Pakistan, political theatre and brinkmanship will rear their heads ever so often, though hopefully nothing that can't be smothered by Asif's cheerfulness. He has a plan in hand to deal with the judges, now he must execute it quickly and let the cabinet get on with the business of governance. The problem with Asif's attritional approach to resolving the judicial crisis is that it creates time and space for events to overwhelm his plan. Right now there are winners on many fronts; Musharraf keeps the presidency, Asif keeps the centre, Nawaz keeps Punjab and Aitzaz keeps alive the hope of a triumphant return to party politics. This particular configuration may not last long, so the constitutional package needs to be sliced up. Get the judicial amendments out of the way first and return later to correct institutional imbalances.

The big loser of the long march is Chief Justice Iftikhar. His dream of returning to the Supreme Court to vanquish his nemesis, Musharraf, is gone. The biggest threat in the lawyers' arsenal – the long march – has been deployed and it didn't even quell talk of paring the CJ's powers or tenure. In fact both seem more likely than ever, as Aitzaz and Nawaz have all but yielded to Asif's roadmap.

The problem for Chief Justice Iftikhar was that he needed to play politics while appearing not to be politicised. His strategy was to allow Aitzaz and later Nawaz to take up his cause, using the bar
associations and the N-league party workers to swell the numbers protesting for his reinstatement. It was a strategy born of necessity and suffered from an inherent weakness: he was at the mercy of the political calculations of Aitzaz and Nawaz. And in the rough and tumble world of Pakistani politics, it's best not to be at the mercy of others.

Assessing the legacy of Chief Justice Iftikhar is premature at this point. At the very least he will be remembered for his heroic defiance of an army chief. However, to enter the pantheon of greats he must do something more. The problem is that since last July, he has decided that the something more is to send an unpopular president home. Compounding that problem is the fact that he lined up the Supreme Court against parliament, much of the political firmament, the army, the establishment and a superpower. These were simply institutional strains the Supreme Court was never designed to withstand.

This hardnosed assessment often rubs Chief Justice Iftikhar's supporters the wrong way. To them it equates power with legitimacy, for illegitimate power must be rejected at the earliest and
Musharraf's power is patently illegitimate. From this perspective, the Chief Justice's earlier sin of validating Musharraf's first coup can be forgiven because it was too early to challenge Musharraf's illegitimately acquired power. But with Musharraf's popularity sinking and the people behind the chief justice, 2007 was the year to aggressively challenge illegitimate power.

Chief Justice Iftikhar's supporters are only two-thirds correct. Yes, illegitimate power must be rejected and it must be rejected at the earliest. But illegitimate political power must be opposed
politically. If Nawaz harangues Musharraf into resigning or Zardari quietly slips a knife in the president's back while embracing him, then let the nation rejoice.

There was another, more practical reason for the chief justice's Supreme Court to step back from its catastrophic challenge to the president. The chief justice and his band of avenging judges had an array of small devices at their disposal to systematically reduce the president's sphere of influence. As army chief, Musharraf had only one tool to cut a recalcitrant judiciary down to size: a second coup.

In the battle between the warrior judge and the warrior president, the country was always going to suffer collateral damage. It is good that the politicians have stepped back from inflicting further damage of their own.

cyril.a@gmail.com

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