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From the Lawyers’ Movement to the August March: The challenges of bringing forth change in Pakistan

By Maryyum Mehmood:


In the past couple of weeks we have seen the unfolding of yet another political turmoil in Pakistan. Tens of thousands of protesters, a significant number of them women and children, have taken to the streets of the capital, demanding the resignation of current PM Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League Noon (PML-N). Sharif’s government stands accused of mass electoral rigging in the 2013 elections. This is not the first time we have witnessed political uproar on part of an increasingly despondent Pakistani public. Only those with selective amnesia could so easily forget the Lawyers’ Movement of 2007-09, which aimed to reinstate then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was unconstitutionally suspended by former President and army chief, Pervez Musharraf. What, if anything, have the people of Pakistan learnt in the 4 years following the end of the movement? In light of the current unrest, there is a limit to how much human resistance can bear, as eventually people will tire and street protests will wean. Can we realistically expect to see substantial ‘change’ in the aftermath of this summer of protests, or will the all too familiar face of political deadlock override?

The Lawyers’ Movement set the ball rolling and evoked a latent sense of political fervor in the masses. Many commentators have asserted that it instilled a passion for democracy and liberal thought within the ordinary Pakistani. However, this neglects the years of resistance to oppression on part of the people of Pakistan, who have so vigorously campaigned against brutality of dictatorships and corruption for decades. Case in point being the national upheaval against Zia-Ul-Haq and his implementation of harsh penal codes in the 1980s. Women, including a young and zealous Benazir Bhutto, spearheaded many of these demonstrations. As such, the art of protest is not foreign to Pakistan. The only difference is the heightened media coverage, which ironically, is a result of the mass “media liberation” during Musharraf’s reign.

Despite the success of the movement in toppling Musharraf’s regime, today many of the movement’s promised reforms remain unimplemented, and the role an independently functioning judiciary is still subpar. The dissolution of the movement has raised a number of questions regarding the impact it has had on the political life of Pakistan. This year, allegations of corruption emerged against Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, regarding preferential treatment given to his son, who had been appointed Chairman of Balochistan Board of Investment. Furthermore, Chaudhry has now been accused of masterminding the 2013 election rigging by Afzal Khan, former additional secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan. Essentially, the movement’s hero has now fallen in the eyes of the very people who slaved away countless days and nights for his reinstatement. This fiasco goes to show that corruption and dynastical politics are not tactics reserved for Pakistan’s political elite.

The dust of the movement has far from settled, yet prominent lawyer and forefather of the movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, seems to have lost his voice, while the remaining pioneers of the Lawyers’ ‘revolution’ have gone into hiding. For the ordinary Pakistani supporter of the movement, the dream of a better tomorrow was short-lived; along with the widespread allegations, the judicial case of Pervez Musharraf, the true aim of the ‘revolution,’ has still not been properly executed.

There are several lessons to be learnt from the demise of the Lawyers’ Movement, in particular for today’s political proselytizers. Firstly, there is need for consistency and clarity in the ultimate aims and goals. The leaders of this summer ‘revolution’ must play their cards pragmatically, with a realistic long-term vision in mind. Toppling the corrupt regime is not something that can be achieved overnight. Corruption is a plight that Pakistan has suffered from since its birth 67 years ago. It is naïve to believe that worthwhile ‘change’ can be harnessed and effectively channeled in a matter of days.

Most importantly, one must realize that there are certain conditions that need to be set in place before ‘change’ is implemented to pave way for ‘revolution.’ The current summer protests may have many of the ingredients for anarchy: mass support of a bright-eyed and youthful population; increasing unemployment; rampant corruption and the ever-present threat of the menacing TTP. However, there has been great failure on part of the political leaders calling for ‘revolution’ to capitalize on this. As with the Lawyers’ Movement, it seems they will only leave with the mission half-completed. Challenging corruption, something so deeply entrenched within the system, is near impossible, especially if those leading the fight against it are divided and uncertain of what they aim to do once their demands are met. One of the key drivers of protests, Tahir Ul-Qadiri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), has been a dubious and rather ambiguous figure. The Canada-based scholar and one-time right-hand man of Nawaz Sharif has failed to launch a cohesive strategy and has often backtracked and wavered his initial demands. Alongside Ul-Qadiri, Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e- Insaaf (PTI) has spent the past few weeks repeatedly calling on the resignation of Nawaz Sharif. While this has managed to put considerable pressure on the PML-N government, it still remains to be seen how far Imran Khan is willing to negotiate his outlandish demands. Quite obviously, corrupt elites are not going anywhere soon. The very fact that Imran Khan has had to team up with the notorious party-hopper, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, in a play of power politics proves just how difficult it is to maneuver in a state riddled with corruption. While this push towards ousting the Sharif government, won’t cleanse Pakistan’s of its political ills, it will definitely shake the political elite to their very core.

Whenever little sparks of hope become apparent, the reality of Pakistani politics plays out in such a way that the situation stagnates almost as soon as it comes into force. The most likely outcome is what we fear the most. With the weakening of the government, the military establishment rears its head once again. Its stranglehold on the nation now rejuvenated and strengthened. The army has already begun serving as a mediator and it is only a matter of time before we see it take a substantial step. This scenario will no doubt leave the Sharifs and their party in complete lockdown and at the behest of the military. However, the possibility of a military coup is highly unlikely at this stage, as the protests have not yet reached a level that would require such action. If some sort of deal were reached, there would be an early election perhaps closer to now than 2016 (mid-term that had been assumed to be the realistic option). Even in this case, the army will have a strong hand in dictating who will be in charge of the collation government. And unlike, what PAT and PTI wishful thinkers would hope for, as in the case of all ‘fair free elections,’ we will see the strong presence of Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and many unexpected regional parties and factions.

There is no guarantee that this re-election will be fair, and it is not yet clear how much support the protesting groups have garnered with these August protests. In any case, the role of armed forces will become more apparent in the coming days, bringing the summer of protests to a culmination.
Maryyum Mehmood is a PhD candidate at the department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research focuses on mechanisms of racial and religious prejudice, and responses to stigmatisation. She is also interested in South Asian security issues. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymood.


2 thoughts on “From the Lawyers’ Movement to the August March: The challenges of bringing forth change in Pakistan

  1. Pingback: The arrival of IS in Pakistan and the politics of the caliphate | Strife

  2. Pingback: The arrival of the IS in Pakistan and the politics of the Caliphate | Z.

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