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National Post: Giving up Power in Pakistan

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  • Tarek Fatah
    President Zardari restores constitution, gives up power in Pakistan: Judges and Generals conspire to stall democracy For 40 years military dictators who had
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 26, 2010
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      President Zardari restores constitution, gives up power in Pakistan: Judges and Generals conspire to stall democracy

      For 40 years military dictators who had overthrown elected governments had ruled unconstitutionally with a complicit judiciary that legitimized their acts of treason. Zardari's action nullified decades of damage to give Pakistan the chance for a fresh start.

      April 26, 2010

      Giving up power in Pakistan

      Lampooned unfairly as "Mr. 10%," Zardari has in fact given 110% back to the country

      Tarek Fatah
      The National Post

      Few leaders have emulated Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who in 1985 relinquished all his powers and voluntarily stepped down as president of the country. 

      At a time when African dictators, Arab Kings and Latin American generalissimos adorned themselves in bizarre military uniforms, medieval costumes and got appointed "life presidents," Nyerere -- known to his people simply as Mwalimu or "teacher" -- quietly passed on the torch. Other Afro-Asian leaders have done the exact opposite. Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafiand the King of Saudi Arabia seem determined to remain in office until the angel of death descends.

      However, on Monday, April 19, a quarter century after Nyerere's rare act of statesmanship, an echo was heard on another continent. With a simple signature, President Asif Zardari of Pakistan gave away most of the executive powers he had inherited from his military predecessors to become the country's ceremonial head of state. 

      For 40 years military dictators who had overthrown elected governments had ruled unconstitutionally with a complicit judiciary that legitimized their acts of treason. Zardari's action nullified decades of damage to give Pakistan the chance for a fresh start.

      In the words of Pakistani columnist Reza Rumi of The News in Islamabad, Pakistan "crossed a major milestone" when all of the country's political parties -- the ruling alliance and the opposition -- reached consensus on the 18th Amendment to the country's Constitution. He wrote, "The distortions inserted by the military rule have been done away with. Political elites this time, however, have gone a step further and improved the state of provincial autonomy. Perhaps this is where a civilian negotiation and democratic politics of compromise has been most effective. Who would have thought a few years ago that this was achievable? There were many skeptics who thought that the amendments might not be approved. However, the 'corrupt' and 'incompetent' politicians have proved everyone wrong."

      Two years ago when Zardari was unanimously elected president by the country's parliament, senate and all members of the four provincial legislatures, he had promised that he would work to amend the country's Constitution so that no future president would be able to dismiss an elected parliament or usurp power. At the time few people believed he would do what he claimed. After all, who in his right mind gives up power, willingly?

      Zardari has proven all his critics wrong and in doing so has changed the course of Pakistan's history. The man lampooned unfairly by the country's powerful establishment-- the media, the generals and thejudges-- as "Mr. 10%" has in fact given 110% back to the country. While the nation celebrates, still in disbelief that anyone at the top was willing to curtail their own powers, his critics in the armed forces and judiciary are fuming that they are unable to stop him from enshrining democracy as an immutable reality in Pakistan.

      The country's Punjab-dominated judges and generals, though smarting from this setback, still wield the power to undo this historic development. In fact, as he signed the document, President Zardari did not shy away from suggesting there may still be some generals lurking in the shadows who could stage a military coup with the backing of the judiciary.

      After the signing ceremony Zardari took everyone by surprise when he said that while the doors stood closed to dictators, "mishaps" could not be ruled out. Asked about the possibility of another dictatorship, he said, "I am fully confident that no dictator would dare step in now, but then, who can rule out mishaps."

      Zardari is a realist who has seen death at close quarters. He witnessed the murder of his wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto; the judicial assassination of his father-in-law, prime minister Z.A. Bhutto; and two of his wife's brothers. I am told Zadari has warned the military as well the judiciary that any attempt to stage a military coup will have to be over his dead body. "I will go down like Allende, not Nawaz Shariff," he told a common friend, and those who have known him since his days at a military cadet college say the man keeps his word.

      As columnist Reza Rumi reminds us, "Despite the march toward the democratic ideal, there are clear and present dangers that democracy is as fragile as ever. The reasons are not difficult to state: The political class that is adept at wrangling and the unelected institutions of the state whose quest for power is an ever-present reality ... the relentless campaign against him [Zardari] continues unabated ... The key power wielders in Pakistan are now the two institutions of the state, the army and the judiciary."

      More than the army, the judges, appointed to their privileged positions by past military dictators, seem to be working to topple the current government. At the head of this campaign is the Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court who has turned his office into that of a political party without the need for any accountability. He has started touring the country holding large political rallies and dispensing justice on the fly at mass public meetings. In one instance, the judiciary has stepped in to set the sale price of sugar, resulting in the shutting down of many private mills. After seeing their military benefactors lose power, the judges now want to try President Zardari for the same corruption cases that had him suffer 10 years in prison with no convictions.

      Only time will tell whether the "mishap" Zardari spoke of will come to fruition or whether the judges, generals and journalists will see the writing on the wall and back off to allow an elected government to complete its term in office -- and let the people decide whether Zardari should be chucked out of office or re-elected for a second term.
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      - Tarek Fatah is a Pakistani-Canadian author. His next book, The Jew is not my Enemy: Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism, will be published by McClelland & Stewart this October.
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