Pakistan: Political Change or Chimera?
The most promising news from South Asia this week comes surprisingly from Pakistan. The Committee formed to examine constitutional amendments has submitted report to the parliament and a joint sitting is anticipated on 5 April. This may lead to 18th Amendment to the Pakistan Constitution restoring supremacy of the elected Legislature after this was usurped by military dictators through Clause 58 b of the 17th Amendment. Renaming of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as Khyber Pakhtoonwa and revocation of the Concurrent list providing greater autonomy to the provinces are other land mark provisions overcoming many political infirmities. How this facilitates control over the Establishment or the Army ISI nexus by the civilian leadership remains to be seen.
The main political hurdle in Pakistan has been the extra ordinary powers that were held by the President through the 17th Amendment of the Constitution wherein he was able to dismiss an elected government and also the judiciary. Thus an 18th Amendment to overcome these black spots on democracy has been planned.
These achievements have been not without high drama. Moments before the scheduled signing of the amendment bill by the all-party Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reforms, the Pakistan Muslim League-N on 25 March backtracked from its stance on the issue of judges’ appointment and renaming of the NWFP, stalling the much-awaited reforms package for an indefinite period.
“I have talked to Prime Minister (Yousuf Raza) Gilani on phone and asked him to consult the chief justice and then decide the mechanism with us,” PML N Chief Mr Nawaz Sharif said at a news conference after presiding over a meeting of the party’s central organising committee and its leaders from the NWFP at the Punjab House. It is apparent that the PML N has developed cold feet. The reasons for the same could be many including renaming the NWFP as Pakhtoonwa.
Another possible reason is to renegotiate composition of the judicial commission that will nominate superior court judges for approval by the parliamentary committee. Some observers believe that this turn was at the behest of some mysterious “quarters” and the PML-N chief adhered to instructions from, “some phone calls” he received just before his press conference.
Who these elements are and what is their intent will remain a mystery, but this is certainly one step that would be seen in poor light for the strength of democracy in Pakistan which is normally said to be ruled either by the Army directly or through back seat driving. Has Nawaz Sharif fallen for the trap despite his enmity with the uniform remains to be seen?
The parliamentary committee on constitutional reforms however stood firm and rejected the proposal by Pakistan Muslim League-N chief Nawaz Sharif for Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to discuss with the chief justice of Pakistan proposed amendment to the Constitution pertaining to appointment of superior court judges. A high level meeting jointly presided over by Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari had decided that the PPP government would go ahead with tabling of the constitution reforms package before the parliament.
The meeting was informed by Senator Raza Rabbani, head of the reforms committee that except renaming of NWFP most of the issues have been settled. The deadlock over renaming of the NWFP persists as the Awami National Party (ANP) said that any name without the use of “Pakhtoonkhwa” in it would not be acceptable to it. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the PML-Quaid. “Pakhtoonkhwa-Abaseen” and “Pakhtoonkhwa-Khyber” were the names under consideration.
Renaming of NWFP homeland for the Pashtuns in Pakistan was a bone of contention between the people and the government of the province and the Punjabi lobby which is extremely strong in Pakistan. This resulted in rejection of the proposal to rename NWFP as Pakhtoonwa or the land of Pashtuns. Punjabi fear of renaming a province in the name of Pashtuns is due to the possibility of emergence of an independent Pakhtoonistan. This would provide scope for separatism. Given that the Afghans are not willing to recognize the Durand Line and feel that there has to be free movement across as the Pashtun land is seen spread across the Durand Line, there is increasing concern in other parts of Pakistan that there would be one day a demand for separation. This has led to controversy of renaming over a period.
While the 18th Amendment is leading to some seminal changes that would put the political class in the driving chair in Pakistan some feel that there are not adequate measures to curb unstinted powers of the political leadership and the Prime Minister may turn out to be all too powerful. This that would possibly suit the PML N and therefore it has allowed the Amendments to go through ensuring that the credit dos not wholly pass on to the PPP. Mr Sharif’s last minute injunction was to gain some political mileage from the issue after much was lost with the PPP looking to steal the show. While much is being made of the amendments some political observers are reticent and want to wait and watch for they say the proof of the political pudding is in the eating.
The Pakistani military may have surrendered its Constitutional guarantees through the Presidency, but the hard instruments that have enabled it to stay in power and the standard operating procedures for a coup that exist may not be given up so easily. So only time will tell if this is a genuine change or a chimera.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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