Rule of law – but who rules? | Imtiaz Alam

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When we met him in Islamabad last Saturday, he looked quite sombre with a  sense of disappointment about him. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif seemed to be weighing his options either to take on the powers that be or reconcile with his third-time dismissal – this time at the hands of an inquisitional judicial bench. But, after continuing to retreat, he has become yet another political casualty in an unequal power-play. Is he left with some fight or will parliament have to rewrite history?

Despite getting a warm reception on his way from Murree to Islamabad, Mian Nawaz Sharif was still counting the leaves of an enigmatic conspiracy to boot him out. With his hand-picked prime minister and a huge cabinet that he has put together with great ease within days of his dismissal, the third-time deposed prime minister still looked more well placed in the civilian power-structures than a political victim. With sarcasm, he haplessly emphasised the need to enforce rule of law in its true spirit, while raising the most pertinent question: who ought to rule (under the law)?

Overcautious and quite certain about his future, he is keeping his cards to his chest while grudgingly referring to the tragic fate successive prime ministers have had to meet at the hands of an ‘over-developed’, ‘over-arching’ and relatively autonomous civil-military establishment in the last seventy years. Historically, this is not the first defeat or retreat of an elected leader. It started with the rise of the governor general and continued with successive martial law administrators.

The retreat of the democratic dispensation started with the help of the apex court when it justified the dissolution of the assembly by the governor general. It continued when Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah was not supported by the leaders of the combined opposition in her resolve to declare herself as the elected president of the republic after she was told that she had won the presidential election against Field Martial Ayub Khan. And it has continued with the dismissals of almost all duly elected prime ministers.

Before being disqualified, Nawaz Sharif told me that no elected prime minister can work with an autonomous organ that acts regardless of constitutional obligations and without the consent of the elected chief executive. A close aide of his has confirmed that he is set to fight his last political battle for the sovereign assertion of the elected governments in all matters of the state, including security and foreign affairs. Should we believe that he has learnt his lessons? That will become clear in the coming days and when we see on what issues he sets his agenda for political mobilisation.

Unfortunately, Nawaz Sharif is the latest casualty of inconsistent efforts for the consolidation of the democratic project in a tug of war between a lame-duck executive and an assertive judiciary backed by the powers that be. He is the second recent casualty; the first being former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani sent home by a proactive judiciary. Yet again, Sharif’s dismissal on a flimsy charge has reminded parliamentarians about the booby-trap(s) still hidden in the constitution, laid by Gen Ziaul Haq. In the words of Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani, despite the removal of the lethal killer of legislative assemblies – Article of 58-2(b) – there are still such tools and powers that are available to other institutions to scuttle the powers of the elected executive and the legislature.

While the attention of the PML-N governments at the centre and in Punjab is going to be primarily focused on the completion of their tenures and on the preparations for the next election, it leaves little room to rabble rousing by its deposed would-be-Rahbar who remains the unchallenged leader of his own faction of the League. As the sword of accountability hangs on the uncertain political future of Nawaz Sharif and his apparent heir, Ms Maryam Safdar, the House of Nawaz has no option but to fight for its survival. He is set to capitalise on the ‘sympathy’ factor by launching his campaign for mass mobilisation in the heartland of Punjab along GT Road.

Although Nawaz Sharif still enjoyed the support of a very formidable block of conservative and pragmatic social forces in Punjab and the Punjabi bureaucracy, he did lose an ally in the judiciary that he had once helped restore. But Sharif is neither a charismatic leader nor a great campaigner. He is, however, a brand name and inspires confidence among the dynamic Punjabi elite and rank and file of League politics. Indeed, the main body of the PML-N would like to capitalise on the ‘sympathy’ for the fallen leader among the PML-N activists and its constituencies across the Punjabi mainland. The PML-N Punjab will certainly make an effort to win a war that the former prime minister had repeatedly lost to his detractors in the dominant power-structures. But the PML-N has a very dismal record as far as resistance goes, and may not go to the point of rocking the system they are keen to milk before the next elections.

This puts Nawaz Sharif in a real dilemma on whether or not to choose the path of resistance. If he fights on, he still has a slim chance to rewrite the rules of power politics. But if he fails then he may have to face the worst kind of consequences, which he is quite aware of. If he does not go beyond capitalising on the yet to be seen depth of ‘sympathy’ and building some counter-pressure, he will just be instrumental in retaining the relative hold of his party in many, if not all, constituencies that it holds now. Capitulation-seekers, including perhaps CM Shahbaz Sharif, would prefer to take a course of appeasement to secure their berths in the current and next political dispensations while seeking a ‘safe-exit’ for their leader.

The PML-N is not a party of agitation and cannot afford to get its own governments destabilised. At best, the PML-N governments can facilitate Nawaz Sharif’s mass mobilisation to improve their chances of re-election. For some reasons, Shahbaz Sharif has again missed the opportunity of a promotion from a provincial to a national leader. And the extended federal cabinet may be at greater ease with a caretaker prime minister rather than submissively playing to the tunes of an exclusionary autocrat. The deposed prime minister’s late democratic cause for the sovereignty of parliament and assertion of elected governments may not impress the powerful pro-status quo lobby in the PML-N. It may help him get off the hook, but that will have its own cost – for better or worse.

The ball is again back in parliament’s court on the future of the democratic transition. This parliament saved Nawaz from being booted out by the street-coup. Had he kept that unique parliamentary unity, things might have been different right now. After continuously conceding space to the powers that be and having lost the battle of survival in the PM Office, the deposed prime minister has finally realised the significance of the Charter of Democracy, which the signatories bent and used for their political expediencies. More than the fate of the former prime minister, it is the democratic transition and the status of parliament that are at stake. Parliament must act to assert its centrality in the power structure and put all other institutions in their due places.

Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani has rightly raised the right alarms over the extension of space by other institutions, including the judiciary and the military establishment. Similarly, leading civil society activist Asma Jehangir has made the right noises about civil-military, judiciary-executive and judiciary-legislature relations. At this very critical juncture of our democratic transition, parliament must collectively act and undertake necessary constitutional reforms to put the whole system in the proper constitutional framework as envisaged in the original 1973 constitution and the Charter of Democracy.

In fact, a new social contract is needed to make the people of this country the real sovereign. All compromises on human and civil rights, sovereignty of representative institutions, civil-military and judiciary-executive relations will have to be rectified. Yet another prime minister might have become a casualty, but parliament has not. Will parliament rewrite history? 

Email: imtiaz.safma@gmail.com

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

The writer is a senior journalist.