Apr 242008

Our public sector is an unmitigated mess. There is practically no public transport in major cities and people are at the mercy of inefficient private conveyors. The public education system is by and large dysfunctional. Health cover is in a dismal state

At the time of elections when the country was struggling with what appeared to be an unending crisis the people in their wisdom gave a split mandate forcing the major political parties to form a “grand coalition”. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that a coalition of major political parties and especially those who have been bitter rivals would be unworkable.

Although coalition governments are a common phenomenon world over but grand coalitions of the type that we have is a rarity; Austria, Germany and Israel are perhaps a few democracies that have experienced it but did not fare well. However, this should not give rise to any pessimism provided our leaders manage it properly by turning this weakness into strength.

In any case, if this alliance falters the alternatives are worse. PPP will have to go back to the PMLQ and independents or seek a fresh mandate.

As we are aware, election results demonstrated a definite trend toward ethnic propensity with ANP winning a majority in NWFP, PMLN in Punjab, PPP in Sind, and MQM in urban areas and a somewhat mixed mandate in Baluchistan as the nationalist parties had stayed away.

The coalition could therefore be a binding force and facilitator in knitting various provinces and ethnic entities. This would of course depend to what extent various elements of the alliance are seriously involved in national decision-making so that they develop a sense of participation, something that was grossly missing in the past.

After nearly nine years of military rule, the country is facing huge challenges in form of energy and food shortages, a scourge of militancy and terrorism and an economic downturn. And due to poor policies, especially of the last eighteen months our deficit and inflation is running high. The global economic environment is also not promising.

In these circumstances for any single political party to bear the burden of governance would have been difficult. The coalition provides a unique opportunity for shared responsibility in focusing on Pakistan’s long term prosperity and at the same time remaining sensitive and caring to the people’s immediate demands. Clearly, this cannot be achieved easily and requires finesse in economic policy preferences. Otherwise the situation could turn politically explosive.

For combating terrorism and extremism a broad political alliance with the military on board has relatively better chances of success. With major political parties owning the “war on terror”, the government’s ability to neutralise militants and address root causes that give rise to militancy is undoubtedly enhanced.

Moreover, several key national issues that have been lingering on for decades due to lack of consensus could be addressed by this government. The role of the National Security Council, oversight of military and intelligence agencies, defence spending and a host of issues related to a smooth and honourable civil-military relationship can be worked out.

Building consensus on contentious issues such as construction of large dams, autonomy and distribution of resources to provinces and formulating a clear policy on Kashmir should be relatively less daunting for this government provided there is political will and the determination to move on. The culture of tolerance has been absent from our political ethos and has to be cultivated and the coalition can be a good nursery for it.

Foreign policy issues, whether they concern US-Pakistan or India-Pakistan relations, need to be harmonised between the parties of the alliance. There are some subtle and some clear differences in approaches and the coalition should devise mechanisms for a uniformed approach. Parliamentary committees and cabinet sub-committees are existing forums that need to be fully utilised.

The government should give high priority to governance because ultimately this is what makes the difference in the lives of people and creates an incentive to defend democracy.

The demand for Sharia by certain segments of the society especially in the NWFP and the tribal belt, apart from other factors, is in essence a manifestation of people’s acute dissatisfaction with the quality of governance. Our public sector is an unmitigated mess. There is practically no public transport in major cities and people are at the mercy of inefficient private conveyors. The public education system is by and large dysfunctional, its schools compare poorly even by regional standards and the nation ranks low when measured in terms of expenditure on education and test scores. Health cover is in a dismal state and would require a major uplift in close cooperation with the provincial governments and private sector.

Hopefully, we will have an independent judiciary once the judges are restored. The present parliament too is likely to be more assertive as it is truly representative and has been denied its legitimate role for years. The media is vibrant and more than any other institution playing a significant role in the determination of the political agenda. It has also assisted in the empowerment and growth of civil society.

Clearly, these are positive developments, but a certain balance has to be struck by all these institutions in dealing with each other and especially with the executive. Putting additional pressure on an already politicised and weakened executive might lead to having a deleterious affect on governance. After all it is the bureaucracy that eventually implements judicial orders and cabinet’s instructions.

Hopefully, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif will be able to return to parliament soon as their absence poses problems of governance. Currently, due to this lacuna major decisions are being taken by the prime minister outside the cabinet and parliament, and top leadership is acting as a politburo of sorts.

Mr Zardari’s remarks in response to a question by the BBC correspondent that he may decide to be the prime minister could inadvertently create uncertainties and weaken Prime Minister Gillani’s authority. The irony is that we are moving from a quasi-presidential system to a grand coalition, two ends of the extreme and the state institutions and our leaders have yet to adjust to these new modalities. The stability and progress of Pakistan will much depend on how successfully we make this transition.

The writer is a retired lieutenant general

Courtesy: Daily times, 24/4/2008

 Posted by at 7:40 am

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