The political divide among forces supporting and opposing the ‘military-judiciary alliance’ in Pakistan deepened on Tuesday when five of the major political parties threw their weight behind undiluted democracy, the sanctity of votes, the supremacy of the parliament and an end to ‘outside political maneuvering and engineering’ in the country.
A crowded national seminar themed “Sanctity of Ballot” was held in the capital Islamabad on Tuesday and was attended by the heads of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML(N)), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), Jamiat Ulema-i- Islam (JUI-F), National Party (NP) and Awami National Party (ANP).
The ruling and opposition parties announced a joint electoral strategy to restore a truly democratic order in the country and avoid yet another disintegration of the country.
Except for the ANP, the rest of the political parties participating in the seminar were PML (N) coalition partners.
The mainstream media blacked out speeches by the political leaders after the Lahore High Court on Monday issued a restraining order on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority airing any “anti-judiciary, anti-military and anti-Islam material.” State-run Pakistan Television and other private TV channels at first muted the live coverage of the event and then discontinued it altogether.
On Tuesday the Supreme Court further clarified the censorship imposed by the High Court on the “slanderous” content of the speeches against judges and the judiciary.
In the court’s view it was not a blanket ban on freedom of expression but, in fact, censorship on the disparaging parts of the speeches of PML (N) leaders was a temporary constitutional remedy to check the onslaught against the higher judiciary. The court cited articles 19 and 68 of Pakistan’s constitution as a base for the action.
Article 19 of the 1973 constitution says freedom of speech is “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of glory of Islam or the integrity, security or ‘defense’ of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, or incitement to an offense.” Likewise, Article 68 imposes restrictions on parliamentary debates, stating: “No discussion shall take place in Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament) which brings in dispute the conduct of any Judge of the Supreme Court or of a High Court in the discharge of his duties.”
When the judgment of the Lahore High Court and subsequent clarification by the Supreme Court are read in the context of articles 19 and 68 of the constitution, it transpires that censorship is not restricted to the judiciary but also encompasses the religious, defense and parliamentary domains as well.
Political observers claim the unified stand against the much-hyped ‘judicial activism’ and ‘covert military interference’ will become a forceful election narrative in the coming months to put the reeling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) back in the game. However, the ANP – the only opposition party joining the Nawaz-led united front against the military-judiciary alliance – did not subscribe to this idea.
“Nawaz’s legal entanglement has nothing to do with the democracy and rule of law. ANP stands for strengthening democracy and democratic institutions and for that purpose every political party should play its role irrespective of its political orientation,” a central leader and spokesperson of ANP, Zahid Khan, told Asia Times.
Zahid said that every state organ should run within the parameters of the constitutional framework and must not overstep to perform a role assigned to another pillar of the state.
The speakers in the seminar also supported the demands of the ongoing Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and urged authorities to listen to their genuine constitutional grievances. The PTM is viewed by the Pakistan army as an Afghan and Indian sponsored insurrection to hurt the military-led anti-terror drive in the tribal belt of the country.
The demands of the PTM include de-mining South Waziristan and other districts of the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), the release of missing persons that number thousands, regular trials of people kept in illegal confinement and a commission to investigate extrajudicial killings by state security forces.
“We extend our support to PTM’s demands because these are the same for which ANP has been striving for long,” Zahid Khan said, adding that they did not agree with their ways of achieving these objectives. The ANP, he said, believed in a non-violent political struggle, while the PTM’s youth prefer force and extreme steps.
Nawaz Sharif, while addressing the seminar, said the nation faced the East Pakistan debacle in 1970 when they failed to honor the sanctity of the vote. He said that since independence in 1947, 20 elected prime ministers had ruled for 38 years, whereas four military generals remained in the saddle for 32 years. “Not a single prime minister had completed his five-year term,” he lamented.