Opinion: Marching for democracy in Pakistan

Viewpoint: Marching for democracy in Pakistan

By Sahar Shafqat

The Baltimore Sun (online)
March 12, 2009

Imagine this scenario: What if a U.S. president, in blatant contravention of the U.S. Constitution, fired every Supreme Court justice because he didn’t like their decisions, and filled the court instead with his own cronies? What if a new president was elected on a promise to restore the rightful judges to their legal positions after he was in office? What would you do if he didn’t follow through on that promise?

That is the position that Pakistan’s people find themselves in today.

Americans have a proud tradition of marching on Washington, D.C. when they want their voices to be heard. Now, Pakistanis are doing the same. Today, thousands of Pakistanis are peacefully marching to the capital to demand a restoration of their judiciary. The government has tried to ban the march and has arrested hundreds of political workers.

With so much focus in the U.S. on trying to stabilize Pakistan, it is surprising that so few are paying attention to Pakistan’s most important pro-democracy movement in a generation. Most of our attention has been given to the war in the northwest of the country, but it is in the struggle over the judiciary that the battle for the soul of Pakistan is being fought. At the center of this struggle is Pakistan’s lawyers’ movement, which represents the best hope for ensuring the long-term stability of Pakistan.

The lawyers’ movement began in March 2007, when former military dictator Pervez Musharraf illegally dismissed the chief justice of Pakistan. In November of that year, he sacked the entire Supreme Court and the provincial high courts as well. After years of dictatorial rule, this was the last straw, and the country rose up against Mr. Musharraf’s actions.

Pakistan’s lawyers were in the lead, but Pakistanis from all walks of life joined the movement to restore the judiciary. I was in Pakistan for the 2007-2008 protests, and I saw young and old, students and workers, women’s rights activists, conservatives and liberals all join the movement. Even the unlikeliest of people supported the cause. At one of the pro-restoration rallies in 2008, I was struck by the policemen who were supposed to be keeping a watchful eye on the participants. Instead, they flashed everyone with victory signs and smiles; they too were supporting the movement!

Pakistanis support the lawyers’ movement because they understand that the rule of law is essential to the stability of a society. Providing fair, impartial, and speedy justice to citizens is one of the most basic requirements of a democracy. And no one, no matter how powerful, should be above the law. For Pakistan to become a truly stable country, we must support an independent judiciary that can stand up to abuses of power and provide a check on the other branches of government.

Unfortunately, the civilian government elected a year ago, led by President Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party, has failed to restore the sacked judges. Even worse, it has left the corrupt judges in place. This is simply untenable in a genuine democracy, which is necessary for Pakistan to tackle the many problems it is confronted with. So it is absolutely essential for Pakistan to have a truly independent judiciary.

Today, thousands of Pakistanis are again marching to Islamabad to demand the full restoration of the judiciary. On their side are truth, justice – and, I hope, the American people.

Sahar Shafqat is associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Her e-mail is sshafqat@smcm.edu.

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