Words like “defining moment” and “historic milestone” echoed widely across Pakistan’s political corridors last week, when a special court pronounced the death sentence on former president General Pervez Musharraf.
To some, the verdict marked a memorable moment of Pakistan’s exit from the influence of the military. But, soon enough, controversy burst in the public domain when details of the verdict were made public for the first time.
In a clear departure from the seriousness that must accompany the best traditions of judicial proceedings, Justice Waqar Seth, head of the three-judge special court wrote that, if Musharraf was even found dead, his corpse ought to be “dragged” to a location across the road from the parliament in Islamabad to be “hanged for three days”.
Such sentiments must fit in a tribal and/or brutal environment of at least five to six centuries ago — if not more — rather than the 21st century.
It’s vital for Pakistan to follow the course of a civilian democracy. But it must also keep intact the role of the armed forces in key decision-making processes.
In a country ruled by powerful generals for just below half of its life as an independent state, knee-jerk reactions right after the verdict were hardly surprising especially, given a polarised atmosphere.
And yet, the reactions must also be seen as premature at best and immature at worst.
The case against Musharraf stems from events in 2007 when he slapped a nationwide state of emergency as Pakistan braved protests by lawyers, politicians and civil society activists following the dismissal of supreme court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary. It is still debatable if the former general should have instead allowed the protests to continue unabated, even at the risk of unchecked chaos and turbulence with unknown consequences.
But the reactions to this week’s ruling carried a hollow ring for another reason.
Pakistan’s mainstream politics has become so overly obsessed with personalities that some of the most vital public issues have clearly been ignored for long. Its therefore hardly surprising that Pakistan has become increasingly dysfunctional over time.
Priorities of Nawaz Sharif and Zardari
The frontline opposition parties appear to be driven primarily with the fate of their leaders rather than the public’s interest. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has campaigned hard since the last parliamentary elections of 2018, seeking to build up pressure for Sharif to be given clearance for heading overseas for medical treatment.
With Sharif now in the UK for medical treatment, the next politician surrounded by a similar push is Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s former president and de facto head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Zardari has recently been released from custody and for now remains within the comfort of an exclusive medical facility in Karachi, though without clearance to head overseas.
Together, the two parties have failed to present an alternative, credible and convincing image for the future of Pakistan based on detailed policy alternatives in key sectors of significance to Pakistan’s average households.
At a time when Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is increasingly facing criticism for its failure to tackle challenges of vital interest to Pakistan’s daily life, and the country’s future, there is clearly a big vacuum waiting to be filled.
The multiple challenges faced by Pakistan today alongside the focus of mainstream political parties, has only exposed an uncomfortable truth.
Neither the ruling structure nor Pakistan’s opposition parties have any clue to handle the acutest challenges faced by the mainstream population.
As for the conviction of Musharraf, that verdict will hardly matter for the future of Pakistan. The former general, who is undergoing medical treatment in Dubai for an advanced ailment, still has the option to appeal the verdict. That gives him time to seek to overturn the verdict.
But more importantly, this verdict will hardly help to narrow Pakistan’s civil-military divide. On the contrary, the overall atmosphere is set to be vitiated. Pakistan’s armed forces not only remain central to the security environment in the country and its surrounding region, notably Afghanistan. More importantly, they also remain a vital stakeholder in running the country at least until such time that other weak civilian institutions get up to speed with performing their obligations.
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Going forward, it’s vital for Pakistan to follow the course of a civilian democracy. But it must also keep intact the role of the armed forces in key decision-making processes. At the same time, Imran’s government has made the right call to take steps for the removal of Judge Seth, by seeking the involvement of the highest judicial forum.
For Pakistan’s political stakeholders across the board, it is vital to understand that their best future lies in lifting their own performance. For the country’s mainstream population, daily life challenges notably related to the economy can just not be tackled the way Pakistan is being run today.
The future of sectors such as public sector education, health care, housing and jobs for the poor depends entirely on the performance of the ruling structure. Within this framework, the opposition has a vital role in becoming an honest watchdog on policy issues.
In sharp contrast, venturing out to settle scores with the last military ruler in the hope of undermining the armed forces will just become a futile venture. Judge Seth’s choice of words in writing the verdict will be remembered more as a vindictive act for still unknown reasons than turning a new page to take Pakistan towards a more promising future.
— Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters