Well, here we go again. Mass protests have erupted in Pakistan, as Nawaz Sharif and others have embarked on a “long march” to protest a recent judicial decision barring the Sharif brothers from holding office. Among other things, the protesters are demanding the reinstatement of Supreme Court Justice Iftikar Choudhry. But one gets the feeling that what is really at stake here is Zardari’s grip on power.
[Update: According to Reuters, Zardari has agreed to reinstate Choudhry, which should defuse the crisis somewhat, and perhaps stabilize his own grip on power. Also see SAJA, and #longmarch at Twitter, for the Tweets of the Twitterers]
First, let me just point readers to a blog from the newspaper, Dawn, with updates on the “Long March” protests. If the stuff hits the fan
on Monday in the next few weeks, when the protesters go to Islamabad, this might be a good place to get the latest information.
Second, weren’t we just doing this in Pakistan last year? In a recent post on Michael Dorf’s blog, Anil Kalhan argues that the parallels are too strong to ignore. I’m not entirely sure I agree, since Musharraf was a much stronger leader before his power started to erode. That said, Zardari’s over-zealous response to threats to his authority has had a lot in common with Musharraf’s own response.
There is also a very detailed account of the back-story behind the current protests by Beena Sarwar here. Among other things, Sarwar notes that the coalition supporting the current protests, which includes the Jamaat-e-Islami, might cause progressives abroad to pause before we raise our fists in pro-democracy solidarity:
In this situation, political instability is distracting at best and dangerous at worst. The â€˜long marchâ€™ demanding the reinstatement of chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Choudhry, spearheaded by the legal fraternity and sections of civil society, has ready allies among the right-wing political opposition.
This includes Sharifâ€™s PML-N and the Jamaat-e-Islami, a mainstream religious party sympathetic to militant Islam, as well as others sympathetic to the Taliban, like ex-chief Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and anti-India hawk Gen. (retd.) Hamid Gul, retired bureaucrat Roedad Khan who brutally quashed political opposition during the Zia years, and cricket hero-turned politician Imran Khan, chief of the Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice).
All these forces boycotted the 2008 polls, except Sharif who rescinded his boycott decision after Bhutto convinced him that elections were the only way forward.
Long-festering tensions between the PPP and PML-N came to a head with a Supreme Court ruling of Feb 25 barring Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif from holding elected office. Bhuttoâ€™s widower, President Asif Ali Zardari is widely believed to be behind this controversial ruling. (link)
Finally, the reliable and independent-minded journalist Pervez Hoodbhoy has a detailed analysis in the latest issue of Frontline, on what he sees as Pakistan’s precipitous slide towards theocracy. His perspective on what is happening in Pakistan is quite alarming to me. Among other things, Hoodbhoy’s article makes me think that it almost doesn’t matter who is running the show in Islamabad; in terms of curriculum in the schools and the cultural mindset of ordinary Pakistanis, the Islamization Zia initiated nearly thirty years ago has steadily continued to progress even under subsequent leaders. (At least, that is what Hoodbhoy seems to be arguing. Any comments from Pakistani readers on this argument?)