The Pakistan Lawyers' Movement: setting a course for genuine democracy?

Peace in Pakistan and the entire region can only be achieved by the creation of genuine democracy in Pakistan, with its military institutions accountable to its elected bodies. Pakistan’s army consumes 38% of Pakistan’s budget without accounting for most of it.

Malaiz Chopan-Daud
6 March 2012

In Pakistan, elections have not only been undemocratic but also immensely divisive, reinforcing Paul Collier’s assertion that elections can be counterproductive in certain settings, creating winners and losers and further divisions. In 1971, elections contributed to the events leading to the break up of Pakistan – the splitting of East from West and the creation of Bangladesh. Second, elections have not necessarily brought genuine popular choices to government. They have been rigged to the point that the elected governments have simply been playthings in the hands of the Pakistani army. One of the cases brought to the attention of the Pakistani Supreme Court (SC) almost a decade ago involved Pakistan’s secret service, the ISI, spending some $ 6.5 million to ensure the defeat of Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, in favor of a conservative alliance spearheaded by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Group) headed by Nawaz Sharif. The case was shelved under pressure from the military until early this month it was revived by the SC. Politicians haven’t been better. They have used extortion, harassment and bribes to win elections.

In 2005 Mu Sochua, a former Cambodian MP and Minister, warned me about the reversibility of democratic gains if the judiciary remains unresponsive to democratic principles. In present-day Pakistan, an independent judiciary is becoming central to the democratic discourse.

A judicial independence movement

The Supreme Court is changing the landscape of Pakistani politics, challenging its predatory elite class, threatening changes to its foreign policy and, most significantly, taking steps to hold its powerful army accountable for its actions. The increasingly independent SC is currently indicting the Prime Minister for contempt, and hearing cases of abuse by the army – extraordinary by Pakistani standards. 


Asma Jahangir, head of the Supreme Court Bar Association, demands the military be held accountable at a press conference in June last year. Demotix/ Isa Daudpota

This should prompt the International Community to give appropriate support to the Supreme Court, instead of supporting a dubious, treacherous and repressive war machine – the Pakistani Army. In this context ‘appropriate’ support denotes recognition, respect and moral backing, not financial aid. The Supreme Court’s adventurism, especially in pressing the Pakistani army, will pose a stern challenge to its leadership and organization. Western governments have a moral duty to proactively warn Pakistan’s army against crossing the red lines – extra judicial killings and disappearances are rife in Pakistan, a fact underlined by disappearances and killings of a number of journalists.

Foreign financial aid has a corrupting, dependency-oriented and deviating effect on civil society. Societal support in the form of civil society organizations is crucial for an independent judiciary to be able to withstand pressure, provided that they are indigenous, deep-rooted, constituency-based, self-organized and self-financed. The Pakistan Lawyers’ Movement provides one excellent example of such a civil society organisation, making a real impact on the functioning of Pakistan’s political landscape.

A case in point

It is a disgrace that the Pakistan Lawyers’ Movement – or in Imran Khan’s words “the Pakistani Spring” – has not received the same level of attention as the Arab Spring. Pakistan’s legal fraternity has brought the country closer than ever to a real democratic state, acting collectively in a manner reminiscent of the qualities identified by Adrian Leftwhich and Chris Wheeler as necessary for leaders of developmental states. The Movement has not only managed to topple a dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharaf, but also forged time and again “coalitions” with other sections of civil society, political parties and media, pushing for further reforms.

A closer scrutiny of Pakistan Lawyers’ Movement teaches us critical lessons; perhaps foremost is that foreign financial aid to civil society organizations is useless, even counterproductive. In Afghanistan, so-called civil society organizations have received millions of dollars in funding and yet failed badly to leave the comfort of their lavish offices, let alone wage a campaign as effective as PLM’s. Moral support does no harm though.

As stated above, similarities can be found between the leadership of Pakistani Lawyers’ Movement and leadership of developmental states such as Mauritius, Singapore, and Botswana. I have argued alongside Saghar Chopan-Daud that “political leadership becomes a critical factor” in transitions, if not a determinant one. The leadership of the PLM has remained united around achieving its chief cause, the independence of the judiciary, despite many differences they may have on other issues. Though affiliated to different political parties – Aitezaz Ahsan with PPP, for instance – they have ensured relative autonomy from outside influences. This has not only made them credible in the eyes of their supporters but also provided consistency to the effort without much interruption. The main aim of developmental leadership has been economic development, which they have remained committed to, withering outside influence.

Furthermore, not only does the Movement itself not rely on a single leader but a collection of committed individuals, it has also managed to rally a number of political leaders behind their cause. Experience of developmental states is evident of the fact that when leaders of political parties, civil society and private sector built appropriate coalitions to collectively achieve their mutually negotiated and agreed-upon goals, they ensured a much higher ratio of success compared to those who personalized and confined power to themselves, their families and, at best, a small number of incapable aides. Singapore and Yemen present compelling cases of former and latter situations respectively.

Lastly, thanks to their ability to establish and preserve a very close relationship with their ranks, the PLM’s leadership has been able to mobilize time and again sizeable street protests. Pakistani Lawyers Association is the main vehicle for closely connecting the leadership to their constituents, resulting in one of the most formidable forces in the history of Pakistan. Close relationship with the ranks is one of the key elements of success – in the case of developmental states, it was working closely with bureaucracy on behalf of leaders that made a huge difference.

Recent events in Pakistan indicate that this is the best shot Pakistan might have at ensuring genuine democracy. Pakistan’s army is feeling the heat, but has not acted to bring the elected government down despite having every reason by Pakistani standards to do so. The decision of Pakistan’s Premier to attend court in person and the suo motu notices taken by the SC also indicate that the PLM’s work is gaining traction. It is worth mentioning that for the first time in Pakistan’s history, every major political party – even those in opposition – warned the army in advance not to attempt a coup. Traditionally, the army has ridden on the back of political support from opposition parties to oust elected governments. This is a significant development.   

Pakistan’s democratization process can provide crucial lessons for academics, experts and practitioners alike. Its immediate benefiters should be its neighbors, Afghanistan in particular because of its apparently faltering democratization process despite receiving billions of dollars over the last eleven years in military and development aid.

In Afghanistan we can learn that forging a transparent relationship with the Afghan people through their real representatives is the way forward. And such representation is not necessarily a product of elections. Representation and its mechanisms have evolved differently in Afghanistan and their evolution should take an indigenous course determined by Afghans rather than an imposed one. Equally important is reform of Afghanistan’s legal institutions, with the network and coalition-building of the PLM a key example of building the necessary support base. Lastly, Afghanistan’s civil society organizations – by one count more than 3500 – are mainly the culmination of an irrational inflow of billions of dollars. If they were genuine civil society organizations, they would at least partially match the achievements of Pakistan’s Lawyers’ Movement – a lone but formidable force.

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