Pakistan’s Long March is an Important Step to Democracy

(Post co-written with Samad Khurram,  a Pakistani citizen who participated in the 2008 Long March.  Samad is currently a student at Harvard University.)

There is something about marching for democracy that captures the imagination.  Perhaps it is because walking is the simplest of human activities.  One foot goes in front of the other, and a movement takes shape.

On March 12, democracy activists in Pakistan will breath new life into this old tradition.  In what is being called the Long March, potentially hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens will walk hundreds of miles to Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city.

Their rallying cry?  The restoration of Pakistan’s independent judiciary.

Pakistan’s recent military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, never much cared for independent judges.  They had a way of interfering with his authoritarian designs.  So in November of 2007,  he sacked senior judges on Pakistan’s Supreme Court.  Musharraf was facing numerous legal challenges to his rule, so the independent judges had to be replaced.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government came down on the wrong side of this historic battle.  Today, American policy makers complain about Pakistan’s weak civil institutions.  But not so long ago, the U.S. government was providing billions of U.S. tax dollars in military aid to a dictator who cared little about Pakistani democracy.  While Musharraf may have done our bidding in the unending “war on terror,” he undermined the very institutions that the region needs for stability.

Today, Pakistani Long March planners are calling for a restoration of those independent judges.  At the core of this effort is the Lawyer’s Movement, a cross-section of Pakistani lawyers who took their suits to the streets when Musharraf first began dismantling the independent courts.  Indeed, the campaign that will begin on March 12th is actually Pakistan’s second Long March.  The first was in June of 2008, when the lawyers and their allies in civil society took a stand against the dictator’s activities.

This second Long March gives the U.S. an opportunity to fix the flaws in our long-standing approach to Pakistan.  Instead of linking America’s interests to individual Pakistani leaders, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden should shift the U.S. focus to supporting healthy Pakistani institutions.  If the Pakistani government regains an independent judiciary, then Pakistani society gets an independent avenue to hold its political leaders accountable.

This will pose challenges for Pakistan’s current leaders.  Pakistani President Asif Zardari may have come to power democratically, but he himself has much to gain from opposing an independent judiciary.  In the late 1980 and mid-1990s, Zardari’s recently assasinated wife Benazir Bhutto served as Pakistan’s Prime Minister.  During that time, Zardari was known as “Mr. Ten Percent” for allegedly taking his personal cut of large government contracts.  The couple had been found guilty of money laundering and corruption by multiple tribunals, most notably by Swiss and Spanish courts.

The return of an independent judiciary spells trouble for Zardari, because it means a new risk that he will be prosecuted on long-standing charges of corruption.  Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the current Supreme Court just barred Zardari’s biggest political rival from holding office.  Protests have ensued.

The U.S. government now faces a choice.  The short-sighted policy would be to continue to intervene in internal Pakistani politics by supporting a president who himself may soon face corruption charges.  The better option would be to take a stand based on principles.  The key principle should be that the Pakistani people are the masters of their own destiny, and that the coming Long March is an opportunity for the deepening of the nation’s democracy.

So long as the U.S. continues to provide heavy support to specific Pakistani leaders, Pakistani democracy will suffer.  Democracy depends on institutions, not personalities.  As Pakistan’s lawyers begin their march, we should hope they achieve what they set out for.

——

Sanjeev Bery is an American human rights advocate who recently returned from six months in South Asia.  Samad Khurram is

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