Will Pakistan’s Political Turmoil Trigger Another ‘Lawyers Movement’?

Will Pakistan’s Political Turmoil Trigger Another ‘Lawyers Movement’?
The latest phase of the ongoing political crisis has been precipitated by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), the governing coalition of 11 political parties, and the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) locking horns over elections to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assemblies. These were dissolved by former prime minister and PTI chairman Imran Khan, who was himself ousted in a no-confidence motion on April 10 last year, and has taken to the streets ever since. For nearly a year since then, Pakistan's political conditions have gone from bad to worse. 

The possibility of widespread unrest is mounting with each passing day, as the PTI resorted to violent agitation on March 14, in what may be seen as the culmination of its ‘anti status quo’ narrative. The PTI continues to exert pressure on the incumbent PDM government to conduct polls, in line with orders issued by a five-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SC) created by chief justice (CJ) Umar Ata Bandial to hear a suo moto case. The CJ presided over the bench, which was reconstituted amid high drama if not outright controversy

Delaying the elections

Elections in the Punjab Assembly and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly are scheduled to be held on April 30 and May 28, respectively. However, the ruling coalition appears to be fully committed to delaying the elections in both provinces, and is rumoured to be “fully engaged” in tactics that could legitimise such a delay. 

One such tactic is the registration of a number of cases against Imran Khan and the PTI leadership, creating legal hurdles in his election campaign. At the same time, Imran Khan is equally responsible for the situation having deteriorated as much as it has, since he opted to resist arrest despite the issuance of a non-bailable arrest warrant by the Islamabad district and session court. The warrant was issued in the Toshakhana reference case, and resulted in a police operation at his ‘Zaman Park’ residence in Lahore, which lasted for approximately 25 hours. It was finally halted on orders from the Lahore High Court (LHC) for one day, to await the judgment of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) as a petition seeking cancellation of Imran Khan’s arrest warrant had been filed there.

The ‘Zaman Park operation’

During the police operation, the Punjab caretaker government even deployed the paramilitary Rangers to maintain law and order in the provincial capital, as clashes between PTI workers and law enforcers spiraled out of control. As Khan’s supporters clashed with law enforcers for more than 25 hours, there was fear of casualties and severe injuries being inflicted on both sides. Even the deputy inspector general (DIG) of Islamabad police, in Lahore with his team to execute the arrest warrants of Imran Khan, was injured during the attempt to arrest Imran Khan, and fell victim to fierce resistance from PTI workers.

Meanwhile, Imran Khan gave interviews to foreign media outlets with tear gas shells placed in front of him, in an obvious attempt to build international pressure on the government. To some extent Khan did succeed in his bid, as former US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted a suggestion that a police operation should be avoided because it would further “deepen the crisis” in Pakistan's deeply polarised political environment.

‘Chief justice is our red line’

Among all the FIRs, warrants, and hate speech dramas, a statement from senior lawyer, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader and former senator Aitzaz Ahsan is of utmost importance. He has given a clear message to all stakeholders that elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa must be held on time in light of the apex court’s verdict.

Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan warned against spreading confusion over the SC judgment in the suo motu case on the date of elections in two provincial assemblies. Ahsan stated that the lawyers would not allow any conspiracy against the CJ, and warned that the country’s top judge "is our red line".

He added that those who sought extensions in the 90-day timeframe for elections would actually be committing contempt of court, and clarified that "we will not let anyone commit contempt of court."

Aitzaz Ahsan specifically mentioned that if any department caused a delay in elections, it would be considered an act of contempt against the apex court. He gave an example in which a hypothetical department could give the excuse that it could not provide funds for the elections, or Rangers for the security, adding that such moves would “not be tolerated” by the legal fraternity.

Another lawyers’ movement?

Apparently the government is not serious about conducting elections on time, and the legal fraternity has openly announced that implementation of the Supreme Court orders would be ensured by them, so this could indicate that another lawyers’ movement is on the cards.

The lawyers’ movement was a pro-justice anti-dictatorship movement that started in 2007 when then-President General Musharraf ousted CJ Iftikhar Chaudhry, and later snowballed into a mass movement until CJ Chaudhry was restored in 2009. This ushered in a new era in Pakistan's political history. 

Since his ouster from government in April 2022, Khan has also addressed many bar associations and lawyers’ groups, asking them to support his “struggle for real independence”. In recent elections to the offices of the Lahore High Court Bar Association (LHCBA), PTI-backed candidates emerged as winning candidates, further supporting the impression that the legal fraternity would put its energy and force behind the PTI. If there are any additional indications that the elections would not take place on time, then it is possible that Pakistan might witness another lawyers’ movement. And this time, the legal fraternity would be joining a mass movement already put in motion by arguably Pakistan's 'most popular' political party. 

Legal fraternity’s support for constitutionalism

Even when the police operation was ongoing at Zaman Park, LHCBA President Ishtiaq A. Khan tried to present a surety bond from Imran Khan to the Islamabad DIG, in which the PTI chief contended that he would appear before the Islamabad court on the next hearing scheduled for March 18. But the move failed to yield any positive result. According to the LHCBA president, the Islamabad DIG deliberately refused to meet him.

Lawyers who support the PTI are currently in the top slots of the LHCBA and the Islamabad High Court Bar Association (IHCBA). But it is of little consequence whether PTI-backed lawyers are influential in the bars or not. 

What matters is that, no matter Pakistan's political landscape, the legal fraternity has always taken a stand whenever they feel the Constitution is being violated. If the political turmoil deepens, and deliberate efforts to delay elections come into the limelight, it could trigger a lawyers’ movement in favor of Imran Khan’s narrative of early elections, as ‘sanctified’ by the SC suo motu judgment.