Zardari, NRO and the Supreme Court
By Izzud-Din Pal
Jurists criticise call for army help on NRO verdict
Three pillars constitute the modern political system: democracy, governance and the rule of law. They interrelate with each other and promote welfare of the people because, as the aphorism underlines their purpose, the system is of the people, for the people, and by the people. For a variety of historical reasons, the interrelationship among them has been quite tenuous in Pakistan.
And currently they are suffering under the burden of the NRO – the so-called National Reconstruction Ordinance that was formally issued by General Pervez Musharraf. Let me explain.
President Asif Ali Zardari, along with many of his senior ministers and associates, is under the shadow of the NRO, his main focus obviously is not on governance but on how to emasculate the accountability process. His government machinery is built on the fortress of alliance, called ‘reconciliation’, for sustaining his rule. As chief executive then he devotes his attention to thwart the decisions of the Supreme Court (SC).
The latest example is his ordinance redefining the powers of the chairman of the National Accountability Bureau, taking advantage of the parliamentary recess. So much for his lip service to the sovereign parliament. This is how the system comes to a full circle.
Several code words have been used to describe this circular causation such as Supreme Court activism, supremacy of parliament, morality and politics, and selective focus on corruption. My objective here is to briefly offer a critical appraisal of the situation with reference to some of these phrases. Of course, President Zardari is the central point of my discussion.
Concerning the possible selective focus on corruption, those who point out that the spotlight on Mr Zardari is deliberate because it ignores other blatant cases of political corruption and that it is unfair because it is not across the board. On the surface this point seems to be plausible.
The problem is much deeper, however. First, there is a long list of well known politicians who have made immense unlawful gains at the expense of the state, and from the bank loan scams. But to establish across the board accountability is to ignore what is happening on the ground.
These people at present are out of the loop which is bound around Mr Zardari. He is directly affecting the democratic process, is guilty of poor governance by any standards of public opinion, and is occupying the seat of power, turning the steering wheel against the relevant legal decisions. And these millionaires!
He has beaten almost all of them. This ‘businessman’ president is ahead of them by billions of dollars, and still gaining ground through unconventional means, taking undue advantage of his position.
As mentioned above, NRO is where the latest chapter in the story begins. In order to confirm that Musharraf regime was unconstitutional, NRO had to be declared as unlawful by the Supreme Court.
Of course Zardari and his associates would suggest that NRO should have been granted an exception, being harbinger of democracy. The argument seems to suggest that the Zardari rule is synonymous with democracy, but NRO was designed for specific circumstances.
The other argument suggests that following the NRO ruling, the rest should have been left for the political process to take its course. In this regard the political process would have to be quite robust to bear this responsibility with a degree of success. At present it is dominated by President Zardari’s Reconciliation.
If the political process were to be expected to clean up where the SC had left, then in all probability it would have become a replay of Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Suharto of Indonesia or Marcos of the Philippines, with their SCs remaining pliable and ‘neutral’. The cost would have been very high.
It took two long cycles of regime changes after the fall of Suharto and Marcos in each case before some meaningful anti-corruption regulations could be implemented. In the meantime the economies suffered and international donors remained apathetic.
Historically, the NRO is the product of the efforts of Benazir Bhutto about her plan to return to Pakistan from her self-imposed exile, and start a new political life as partner with General Musharraf in ‘transitional’ democracy. She knew that the road to Islamabad was via Washington, D.C. Condoleeza Rice was persuaded that Benazir Bhutto as a popular leader would be an asset for US strategic interests.
In the first round on the eve of the general elections, Richard Boucher and John NegropontÃ¨, Assistant and Associate Secretaries of State, respectively, visited Pakistan to pave the way for the transition. The circumstances had changed after her tragic assassination and Anne Paterson of US and Mark Lyall Grant of UK reportedly made the plans to install the widower of Ms Bhutto.
Why was NRO a necessary condition for return of Benazir Bhutto? A brief answer is that in the first phase of the reorganised NAB under General Musharraf two senior bureaucrats from Islamabad received the assignment to pursue the corruption charges against Ms Bhutto and Asif Zardari. According to reports, they succeeded in collecting all the documentation relevant to the allegations against them. With that evidence the familiar response of ‘politically motivated’ usually offered by Ms Bhutto had lost ground.
Court cases abroad had become a reality. The rest is well known political manoeuvring between Benazir and Musharraf through the Anglo-American blessings.
When the widower was elected as President of Pakistan through the indirect election, he had two objectives before him – to implement the understanding about the US strategic interests, and to protect his NRO immunity by strengthening the pre-PCO judiciary.
These objectives were to be pursued through the facade of democracy, with the shelter of political alliances for power and perks (so-called reconciliation) strengthening this faÃ§ade. Association with PML-N was never a serious option.
Coming then to the present, it seems that with NRO declared as unconstitutional, it is the duty of SC to make sure that a credible accountability process is in place. SC cannot be accused of judicial activism in this regard. NRO is unique to Pakistan, a legacy of ‘special’ relations with US.
In general what appears to be active interest of SC in national issues is based on an institutional imbalance in the country. With an executive in a limbo with very poor record of governance, for example, people look to SC for redress of their grievances.
Similarly, an independent system of accountability would make it unnecessary for the courts to intervene. Also with active laws and regulations promoting competition and discouraging monopolistic practices, there would be no need for people to seek help from the courts concerning commodities such as sugar.
One must distinguish between corruption as a legal issue and in the context of the moral imperatives. It is the former and not the latter which is in the domain of accountability process. This distinction is important because the new 2010 constitution has liberally borrowed the POs of General Ziaul Haq about honesty, sagacity, etc. as qualifications for parliamentarians.
If the case against President Zardari is pursued to its logical conclusion, it should not mean that this would lead to the collapse of the nascent democracy in Pakistan. He will have enough in his kitty to make a deal and settle with accountability, if he were so inclined. It would be difficult to believe that in his two-plus odd years at the presidency, he has proven his qualifications as a man of political vision about the future of this country.
Nor does he seem to be indispensable for the PPP, having occupied the chairmanship of the party on the basis of the will of spouse. In fact there are some talented people in the party who have been pushed in the background.
On the other hand, if the present hiatus persists to the end of his term, the PPP will definitely lose in the general elections, given the present outlook about the situation. But he will not have his usual tools of the trade at his disposal then to offer perks and privileges promoting his ‘reconciliation’. Regaining political power through general elections would not be his forte. He is not a people’s person.
The question of corruption in the country will never be resolved’ in any case, until the matter is broadened to include all those who over the years have taken advantage of the soft-state syndrome in Pakistan.
The writer is a retired professor.