Managing a divided coalition —Rasul Bakhsh Rais

The Charter, if studied properly and implemented in its true spirit, would provide the bedrock on which Pakistani democracy can be built. Significantly, it expresses a consensus on the rules of the political game
The February 18 general elections were a landmark event in the political history of Pakistan for many reasons. They resulted in defeat for the ‘King’s Party’, which was created to provide a political façade to a military regime; it would not be wrong to interpret the electoral result as a vote of no-confidence against Pervez Musharraf and his domestic and foreign policy agenda.

We should not forget that the elections took place in the backdrop of dramatic political changes in the country, beginning with the sacking of the Chief Justice of Pakistan; the resultant lawyers’ movement; the imposition of emergency; and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Certainly the political atmosphere was dense with anti-Musharraf sentiments; electorates were not willing to accept any argument in support of Musharraf or his allies or any excuses for why they failed to do certain things.

While the public mood centred on rejecting Musharraf and the popular sentiment favoured political change, the elections didn’t produce a single majority party either at the centre or in three of the provinces. In a way, we saw the recreation of a political landscape somewhat similar to the one we had witnessed about two decades back: a divided mandate.

This time around, however, we also noticed a difference in the attitudes of the top leaders of the two parties. The PMLN and the PPP entered the election race on a somewhat common agenda, as close as possible without a formal electoral alliance.

With some usual variance in their manifestos, the two parties shared a common vision about the1973 Constitution, independence of the judiciary (including restoration of sacked judges), a parliamentary form of government and the need to redefine civil-military relations. These are indeed structural issues crucial to a democratic transition which none of the parties could avoid focusing on.

Leaders of the PMLN and the PPP, laudably, had reached an understanding quite early on how they would put Pakistan back on the rails of democracy. The Charter of Democracy, signed in September 2006, is as good a grand consensus as can be that comes close to a fundamental political document.

The Charter, if studied properly and implemented in its true spirit, would provide the bedrock on which Pakistani democracy can be built. Significantly, it expresses a consensus on the rules of the political game. We may also term it as an elite consensus that is essential for building any stable political order in transitional societies like Pakistan.

One thing the February elections and the will of the electorate suggest is that our political class still has to learn the essence of democracy, which is far more complex than contesting elections and celebrating victories. There are two lessons to be learnt.

First, the days of heavy mandates are over, and no single party can really hope to win majorities anymore. This is a clear electoral verdict that we see in the present assemblies.

The second lesson is more difficult to learn because it requires openness, wisdom, and a people-first approach. It pertains to the real meaning of democracy –working together in the public interest and according to constitutional norms. This is to be done through political coalitions, and it is not necessary that the parties joining such coalitions must be ideologically close to each other. Political coalitions are typically fashioned around a minimum political programme, reforms or set of policies, and nothing more.

Both democracy and coalition building require a political culture that promotes working together, something that has been missing in our country. The old scars of political confrontation are ugly and visible. But let us not forget that times have changed, and political leaders have more or less the same capacity for learning from experience as ordinary folks.

Partly, at least, this learning has taken place; that is why we have coalition governments at the centre as well as in the provinces. The PPP with greater numbers at the centre didn’t try to use any leverage it had to deny the rightful share to the second largest party, the PMLN. About one hundred days back, political change in Pakistan took place on many hopeful notes, and chief among them was the act of coalition building.

The coalition at the centre and in the Punjab between the PMLN and the PPP has not fallen apart yet and that is a good sign, too — so far.

The PMLN has withdrawn itself from the federal cabinet and since has not shared the burden or responsibility for the troubles that its coalition partner may face. More alarmingly, it has distanced itself from some of the domestic and foreign policy decisions that the PPP has taken — the operation in FATA, cooperation with the US to stabilise Afghanistan, and hikes in oil and gas prices. The two parties also continue to differ on how and when to restore judges.

Do these differences warrant a final break up? No, that will push Pakistan into a disastrous spin of uncertainty and instability, and would revive the destructive politics of confrontation. At least the regular pronouncements of the two parties continue to confirm that they are on the same page on fundamental issues.

In my opinion, the divided mandate and a popular sentiment for democratic transition present a challenge as well as an opportunity for the political parties to show maturity, rise above partisan politics and learn to cooperate in the public interest as well as in the interest of strengthening democracy in the country. They have a heavy responsibility on their shoulders.

The best response at this point would be to bring the PMLN back to the coalition and continue working on the basis of a minimum common agenda that both parties share. Some may argue that this is impossible in our highly personalised political culture where personal interests and political ambitions come before everything else. Well, politics is the art of making things possible by bargaining and compromise.

Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at

Daily Times, 8/7/2008

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