Political drift — Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

Civilian political leaders need to get their act together in order to ensure Pakistan’s internal cohesion and democratisation. If the political forces drift in different directions, the ongoing democratic experiment can run into serious trouble

Pakistan’s legal and political circles will continue to debate Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification as a candidate in the by-elections and how political considerations tainted the accountability process under Pervez Musharraf. These discussions will have implications for the nature and direction of Pakistan’s on-going transition to democracy.

The dominant view in the PMLN is that Sharif’s disqualification was a deliberate attempt to restrict his role in domestic politics because he had adopted a highly strident approach towards the key issues, i.e. the future of Pervez Musharraf and restoration of the ousted judges. Sharif’s election would have enabled him to raise these issues repeatedly in the National Assembly.

This hardens the PMLN’s attitude towards the future of Musharraf because some party members think that the presidency has played an invisible role in obstructing Sharif’s effort to enter the National Assembly, although advocates of this perspective have not provided any supporting evidence. It is also viewed as an attempt to force the PMLN to accept the legitimacy of the reconstituted judiciary by forcing Sharif to approach it for the reversal of his disqualification.

The PMLN is expected to campaign more aggressively for the impeachment of Musharraf. It will adopt a similar disposition on the judges issue and insist on their restoration independent of the proposed constitutional amendment. The party’s preferred option is the restoration of the judges through a resolution of the National Assembly and an executive order by the prime minister.

The differences between the PMLN and the PPP on these two issues are well known, but they have continued to work together to ensure continuity in the democratic transition. However, the latest development has built new strains in their relationship and has strengthened the hands of hard-line elements in the PMLN who advocate suspension, if not termination, of cooperation with the PPP.

The PMLN faces a dilemma. It is unhappy with the PPP’s status quo-oriented approach to the future of Musharraf and restoration of the judges. Its members pulled out of the cabinet to register their differences. However, if the PMLN severs its relations completely with the PPP and challenges it in the streets, there is no guarantee that the former’s goals will be achieved. This threatens the PMLN government in Punjab and can lead to the collapse of the post-election political arrangements. This does not serve the long-term PMLN agenda.

Despite the PMLN’s growing alienation from the PPP, the former does not have pragmatic alternatives to working with the PPP. But their relations may suffer in the future because PMLN activists are perturbed by what has happened to Sharif.

The PPP is no doubt the biggest party in the present-day context. However, it cannot alone ensure Pakistan’s transition to democracy. Therefore, it needs to remove ambiguity in its disposition towards the two issues. For example, Asif Ali Zardari questioned the legitimacy of Musharraf’s presidency and declared in another statement that the next president should be from Sindh. This creates the impression that the PPP wants to remove Musharraf. However, there is no evidence available to suggest that the PPP is working towards this goal.

Pakistan is currently passing through a transition from an authoritarian, military-dominated political order to representative governance. It therefore needs internal cohesion and stability for strengthening political institutions and processes. This requires active cooperation among major political parties and groups. It was a positive development that the two major political parties decided to cooperate in setting up the new government. They were joined by the ANP and the JUIF; the MQM also offered support in a selective manner.

The PPP faces a less complicated political situation today for guiding Pakistan on the road to democracy than was the case in 1972, after its first government was established. Though Yahya Khan’s military regime had collapsed in December 1971 after losing the war with India, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had to deal with the tri-fold challenge of dealing with negative fallout of the war, especially the issue of Pakistani POWs; building confidence in the viability of the remainder Pakistan; and bringing Pakistan back to constitutionalism and democracy.

Today, the PPP leadership has to address only two sets of problems to ensure Pakistan’s transition to democracy, i.e. getting rid of the remnants of the old authoritarian order and ensuring coherent and stable governance. The future of Musharraf and the unconstitutional removal of the judges on November 3, 2007, are leftover issues of the old order that should have been tackled soon after the new government was installed. They can still retrieve the situation by taking the initiative on these issues in cooperation with other political parties. This will remove ambiguities in the present political situation and facilitate Pakistan’s transition to fuller democracy.

The task of the government is facilitated by the fact that the present military leadership has made ample space available to the civilian political leadership for governance and political management. Even if it is a tactical change in the disposition of the military, the civilian leadership has got a much-needed opportunity to rehabilitate and stabilise democracy.

Civilian political leaders need to get their act together in order to ensure Pakistan’s internal cohesion and democratisation. If the political forces drift in different directions, the ongoing democratic experiment can run into serious trouble. Harmony and cooperation among political forces is a pre-requisite for political stability and democratisation.

The major obstacle to such harmony is the reluctance of the government to adopt a clear position on the removal of Musharraf and restoration of the judges. The current option of restoration through a constitutional amendment is a non-starter because the government does not have enough support in the upper house. Further, the proposed amendment puts together a large number of diverse issues that reduces the chances of building consensus. This means that restoration of the judges is likely to be delayed for an indefinite period. If the government is not keen on the restoration of judges, it is not expected to work towards removing Musharraf in the near future.

As long as these issues remain unresolved, the government will get very little time to deal with pressing socio-economic issues. This will cause disappointment among the people and alienate them from the government. If democracy cannot solve the problems of ordinary people, it can never command their support.

Therefore, there is a linkage between how the two key issues are resolved and the government’s capacity to cope with socio-economic problems.

Non-recognition of this linkage would create the credibility crisis for the government and weaken its credentials as a popular entity. Other political parties that favour stabilising democracy cannot be expected to stay quiet for an indefinite period and leave everything to the discretion of the PPP leadership.

The February elections have created an unprecedented opportunity for Pakistan’s return to democracy. However, if the current drift continues in Pakistan’s domestic politics, it is difficult to suggest if Pakistan will be able to build enduring participatory institutions and processes. If the major political parties cannot find a mutually acceptable solution to the two key problems and the government insists on correctness of its approach in disregard to the sensitivities of other political players, the present democratic experiment can run into difficulties.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Source: Daily Times, 29/6/2008


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