As the 12 justices of Pakistan’s Supreme Court deliberated the future of their deeply troubled country this week, one of the most senior judges paused to sum up the gravity of the decision they were about to make.
“We are not going to let Rome burn while we sit here fiddling with the wording of our constitution,” the judge declared.
The decision handed down Wednesday evening was unprecedented. Paving the way for a return to full democracy after more than a decade of dictatorial rule, the court decided not to reinstate the handpicked government of the late Gen. Zia ul-Haq. The court earlier had ruled that this government was illegally dismissed by Zia last May.
Won’t Add to Confusion
Instead, it stressed that only free and fair elections can help cure the political and social crises that now torment Pakistan after Zia’s prolonged authoritarian rule.
“We do not propose to do anything which makes confusion worse confounded and creates a greater state of chaos, which would be the result if the vital process of elections is interrupted at this juncture,” the high court stated.
As a result, said one diplomat who asked not to be named, “The people’s estimation of the judiciary has gone way up. . . . It’s easy to get sucked into equating democracy with elections. But there are larger dimensions there. And this ruling is part of that larger dimension.”
Wednesday’s decision was the last of a series of Supreme Court rulings reversing Zia, who was killed Aug. 17 in a mysterious plane crash, and laying the groundwork for the first free elections in Pakistan in nearly two decades.
Participation by Parties
During the past 10 days, the justices also have ruled that:
-- The elections scheduled for Nov. 16 must be open to participation by political parties, overturning an order issued by Zia shortly before his death. According to many analysts, this favors opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party.
-- Party symbols may appear on the ballots. This gives an important advantage to the opposition; more than three-quarters of the voters are illiterate.
-- Zia’s May 29 dismissal of the elected government was unconstitutional, illegal and unwarranted.
“We are not unmindful of the fact that the whole nation is geared up for elections,” the high court said Wednesday in explaining why it was not ordering reinstatement of the previous government, a move that would have forced cancellation of the Nov. 16 election.
The political opposition immediately hailed the ruling as “historic,” and Western diplomats and businessmen declared that despite widespread violence and deep social unrest, Pakistan appears to be on the brink of true democracy for the first time since the country was created 40 years ago.
‘Finally Feel Free’
Benazir Bhutto, who is recovering from the birth of her first child two weeks ago, said through her mother, Nusrat Bhutto, that the people “finally feel really free.”
By virtually all accounts, the elections will be held on schedule. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who succeeded Zia, emphasized that the recent eruption of violence, which has left up to 300 dead in Karachi and Sind province, will not delay the elections.
In the course of a visit to the region this week, Ishaq Khan talked about the violence, in which dozens of masked gunmen opened fire at random on unarmed civilians in commando-style operations. He called it “an act of sabotage and terrorism by the enemies of Pakistan.”
Denies Martial Law Planned
Ishaq Khan dismissed as unfounded rumors that martial law is to be renewed, saying: “If these designs of the evildoers are intended to delay the election scheduled for Nov. 16, they will be utterly disappointed.”
The army chief of staff, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, was equally unequivocal. He said that except for enforcing curfew regulations in Karachi and Hyderabad, centers of the violence, his troops will remain in their barracks.
With fears of martial law brushed aside, political activity has approached fever pitch. On Thursday, after the court announced its ruling, Bhutto and her mother met with other party leaders and began drafting an election manifesto. They also were sifting through more than 18,000 names submitted for the 1,200 national and regional legislative seats that will be contested.
Since August, when Zia was killed and his party split in two, there has been a rush to join the Bhutto party, which Zia banned in 1972 after he overthrew Bhutto’s father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and approved his execution.
Bhutto’s Prospects Brighten
With the split in Zia’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League, many powerful local political bosses are switching to the opposition.
Bhutto’s political fortunes look even brighter as a result of the Supreme Court ruling that will permit the use of party symbols. The ruling allows parties to choose from a list of 82 objects--axes, arrows, telephones, tractors, etc.--as party symbols.
As far as the Bhutto forces are concerned, a final, critical decision is still to be made. The election commission is to decide whether the party will be permitted to use the still-banned symbol of the sword, the translation of her father’s first name and a traditional symbol of political power in Pakistan.
“With or without the sword,” a diplomatic source said, “the Supreme Court’s rulings have definitely improved the odds for Benazir.”
There is widespread speculation that for the first time in history a woman will become prime minister of an Islamic nation, but the diplomat cautioned that political divisions are so deep here now that no single party is likely to win a clear majority in Parliament.
Not a Sweep
“Clearly, there is momentum on the side of the People’s Party now,” the diplomat said, “but I would not over-exaggerate it. I would caution that it not be read as a sweep for Benazir Bhutto and her party.”
He said a joke going around has it that the People’s Party has the people, but it still doesn’t have the candidates, and that the Muslim League has the candidates but not the people.
“No matter what happens,” he said, “I think you’ll see the ultimate power decided by the coalitions that will form after the elections.”