May 292008

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

So rapidly are political events in Pakistan unfolding, that it is at times difficult to keep pace. Certainly, it is almost impossible to say what scene will be played once the finger is taken off the ‘fast forward’ button, with a dramatic struggle now openly underway between the presidency and the government.

The president of Pakistan – who has for four years not even stepped within what should be his constituency, the parliament – still seems to believe he has the right to remain in top office. Attempts to dissuade him, and the diplomatic approach adopted with regard to the presidency by the prime minister, seem not to have moved Musharraf – who now faces an all-out assault from the PPP co-chairman. The threat of impeachment is very real, the PPP has suddenly struck back with unexpected vigour against charges that it was conniving with the presidency and Prime Minister Gilani has emphatically stressed the need to uphold the letter and spirit of the Constitution of Pakistan, on the basis that this document alone has kept the federation intact despite the strains it has faced.

The president seems disinclined to accept Mr Zardari’s advice and quietly walk away into the sunset. He, as most had predicted would happen, instead seems bent on striking back and the presidency once more appears to have been converted into a centre for Machiavellian intrigue. Pakistan has seen similar, equally distasteful, events in the not too distant past. In such a situation, it seems the key coalition parties, despite the evidence of discord between them, will find it necessary to continue their partnership for the present. There is some confidence in PPP ranks that Washington has realized it may be impossible to retain Musharraf and has come to terms with this – but it is still too early to say how key institutions in the country will respond to any threat to the former COAS. The statement from the presidency Sunday, rejecting conjecture of an attempt to change the COAS, certainly suggests growing anxiety within the Musharraf camp regarding relations with the military.

As this sequence of events continues to move forward at a blinding pace, it is easy to become mesmerized by the soap opera, with its cast of ‘good guys’, ‘bad guys’ and shady wheeler-dealers, a script made up of solemn pledges and broken promise and, in the backdrop of it all, an unsolved murder which formed the triggering point for much that is happening today. It is also easy to fall in with the barrage of criticism: nothing has changed; the economic crisis is worsening; the terrorist threat remains in place, the affairs of both the PPP and the PML-N are being run by unelected leaders. All these points of attack have roots in reality. They can neither be denied nor wished away.

There are many facets of politics in Pakistan that are undesirable; many dimensions of life that are grim. Some stem from the past agreements, both tacit and public made by leaders, the deals involving players both at home and abroad and the fact that there is so much about the running of the country that is covert. The NRO, other agreements reached both before and after Benazir Bhutto’s death and commitments given to Washington, are all a part of this. The fact that governance depends so little on events within parliament and a great deal on what happens outside is a result of frequent deviations from democracy and the Constitution. There is a possibility that the amendments included in the PPP’s ambitious package can help restore the representative democracy envisaged by those who wrote up the document in 1973, but this of course will depend on what happens over the coming weeks.

Whereas there is a great deal to worry about, particularly as far as the dual crises of the economy and energy go, there are small, almost uncelebrated triumphs that need to be acknowledged. These are, of course, only miniscule drops in a turbulent ocean – but we must not forget this ocean is made up of problems that have accumulated and thus gained greater force over many years. They cannot, and will not, simply disappear. This of course does not mean policies to resolve them should not be drawn up, and it is the apparent uncertainty, the slow pace adopted in this regard, that is a key source of discontent.

On a more positive note, when we press that pause button, and the ceaseless forward momentum ceases for a bit, there are some welcome events to be spotted. The release of Baloch leaders Akhtar Mengal and Shahzain Bugti are among these, though of course a great deal more needs to be done to achieve reconciliation in Balochistan. The freeing, after nine years in jail, of Rehmat Shah Afridi, a newspaper editor who seems to have been penalized for his attempt to expose the involvement of persons in key places in the narcotics trade and for his refusal to testify against Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, is also immensely welcome.

Prison doors have also opened to let out several of the country’s ‘disappeared’ people. More need to join them. Student activities have resumed on campuses, amendments in the PEMRA law restricting media freedoms have been reversed and a package to upgrade wages and benefits for labourers announced. To some extent at least, the wheat flour shortage issue has been managed, though issues of price remain intact; a plan has been announced to tackle a crippling energy crisis created by the failure to make any increase in capacity since 1999 and will be enforced from June 1. The decision to abandon the Kalabagh Dam, for so long the source of destructive federal friction, is sensible. In NWFP, under a revised policy on militancy, some headway has been made in reaching truce with militant clerics of the province – though the final outcome of such accords is far from certain.

For a government that has been in office for less than two months, which has remained caught up from the start in a judicial crisis, has faced impediments placed by an entrenched and powerful establishment and which has now lost key cabinet members after the PML-N’s decision to pull out of government, this is not a bad track record. The problem is that the mountain of difficulties is so high that each step taken makes only the smallest impression. This is all the more so given the intense focus on the judicial issue. It is also true that there is as yet little evidence of a clear-cut strategy to tackle the most critical issues – particularly those of the economy. The indication that significant relief is to be offered in the budget is welcome news in this regard.

While political events continue to race on, and the nation at times seems to be in free fall as it continues its roller coaster ride, there is a need perhaps to keep things in perspective, look beyond the haze of conspiracy and retain some optimism, for, no government should be assessed on the basis of a time in office that as yet still spans only weeks.

Source: The News, 29/5/2008

 Posted by at 7:57 am

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