Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Thursday, March 12, 2009

By Sanjeev Bery, Wajiha Ahmed

Today, a major Pakistani movement for democratic reform will challenge Pakistani President Asif Zardari with a call for government accountability. Known as the Lawyers Movement, this coalition of civil activists will give America a chance to voice support for the strengthening of Pakistan’s democratic institutions.

Members of this movement will begin what they are calling the Long March —- a multi-day walk across the nation that will end in the capital, Islamabad. They are marching to demand a restoration of the independent judges that the former U.S.-backed dictator Pervez Musharraf removed.

Their demands aren’t just important for Pakistan’s internal politics, but for regional stability as well. For too long, Pakistan’s democracy has been the political football of a few elite families and military dictators. As a result, average citizens cannot depend on government institutions. An independent judiciary is the first step toward reducing corruption and strengthening democracy.

The Lawyers Movement is already triggering some political chaos. The Pakistani Supreme Court has barred one of Zardari’s biggest political rivals from running for office, provoking protests across the country.

The rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, had previously joined forces with the Lawyers Movement. Perhaps this was why the judges blocked Sharif from holding office. The judges, after all, would probably like to keep their jobs. And because Zardari himself faces allegations of past corruption, he has no interest in having an independent judiciary either. That is why Zardari has initiated a massive crackdown on his democratic opposition.

It would be easy for the United States to criticize the Long March and its democratic challenge to the current president. But that would be a mistake. For too long, the U.S. has only thought of its own short-term interests in dealing with Pakistan. From fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to defeating the Taliban, U.S. presidents have justified giving billions of dollars in military aid to Pakistani dictators. Unfortunately, the result for average Pakistanis has always been government corruption instead of responsive institutions.

This isn’t to blame the U.S. for every challenge that Pakistanis face. But it is to say that we have not necessarily done what is best for Pakistan’s long-term development. Today, the Lawyers Movement offers us a chance to shift gears.

Restoring Pakistan’s independent judiciary may well make life more difficult for the nation’s political leaders. In the long run, however, it will increase the likelihood that Pakistan’s government will start to address basic problems of poverty, education and infrastructure. No amount of U.S. military aid can bring this kind of stability. But supporting the call for government accountability in Pakistan would be a step in the right direction.