Between hope and chaos —Rasul Bakhsh Rais

The hope that the present elected leadership of the dominant party can address the many challenges facing the country is fast dissipating. There are no alternatives other than chaos, confrontation and even more chaos

The hope and optimism witnessed on and after February 18 have diminished fast, and been replaced by despondency and gloom. Reasons for jubilation were many, for the country was seen as going back to genuinely elected representatives. It was thought that the people’s representatives would have greater social capacity and political connectivity than the ‘man-in-uniform’ and his manufactured party that had run the show for eight years.

A more significant reason for our undying democratic optimism was the fact that we had a formidable political coalition at the Centre and, in at least two major provinces, alliances comprising parties and leaders that had been confrontational in the past. We thought they were born-again political forces, that they had learnt their lessons and would honour the trust and confidence that the people of Pakistan had reposed in them.

Let us also not forget the social and political mobilisation for the restoration of the Chief Justice of Pakistan and then against the imposition of the fourth martial law disguised as a state of emergency. Tens of thousands of men and women endured the summer months of 2007 out on the streets, facing frequent police brutality and even imprisonment. This explicably raised popular expectations about better governance, rule of law and justice for all, including the judges of the apex court.

It seems the law, and the logic of realpolitik in our part of the world where self comes before the community, nation and society at large, takes a different view of things political.

Before we address this issue in some detail, let us also consider the dilemma that procedural democracies face in lacking institutions that hold elected representatives accountable.

In substantive democracies, the political sins of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence cannot be washed away with an electoral win. The justice system operates independently of what the electorate thinks about its representatives. But when leaders are indicted and face trial, their public standing in their respective constituency changes as they fall from grace. Disgraced leaders seldom rise to reclaim their place.

Our democratic leaders know well our systemic failure and, I am sure, they have an abiding interest in keeping the institutions of accountability, law and justice weak, and the judiciary subordinate to the executive to escape the legal and political consequences of their misdeeds. While in power, they undermine institutions by using them to their benefit, and when out of power they discredit them as politically inspired.

All valid actions taken against the corrupt practices and unlawful actions of predecessors are conveniently dismissed as politically motivated. Is it not strange for a country that is ranked by Transparency International and other bodies as one of the most corrupt countries in the world to grant a clean slate to all factions, groups, party leaders and individuals who have ruled this country!

This is the problem at the centre of Pakistan’s political crisis today. Political circumstances — the martyrdom of Benazir Bhutto — have landed in power a faction of PPP leaders that are not very sure about how they would be treated if the judiciary is independent and the rule of law regime is free of political strings.

It would be unfair to say that the PPP leaders are alone in this fix of legal and judicial insecurity. One can include almost the entire ruling elite of Pakistan — powerful figures of the civilian bureaucracy, politicians, and the generals. And let us not forget the former COAS, now the President, facing serious questions about his legitimacy, his destruction of the judiciary and violations of the Constitution.

It would therefore be politically prudent for any such group to destroy any institution that would hold them accountable. PPP leaders are in a better position, at least politically, when they say ‘we haven’t done it; someone else did’.

But ‘someone else’ and the PPP leaders had reached an understanding to help each other escape accountability, respect each other’s separate power domains and cooperate, at least for while until the ghosts of past illegalities disappear.

What adds to the ruling coalition’s insecurity is that these ghosts are not going to go away. This is why they have detracted on the issue of allowing the deposed judges to return to their positions. And in the meantime, they have packed the superior judiciary as an insurance policy.

The present drift of the ruling coalition and the real possibility that it may fall apart is rooted to a great extent in the self-interest of our leading political lights. It would make sense for any person or group with so much power in their hands, and so much at stake, to subordinate legal, constitutional and judicial process to their interests.

So great is the concentration of power and, perhaps, the false sense of durability of that power that a single leader of the PPP calls all the shots. The party, the country and the society is helpless and just looks to him, the benign sovereign, to do some good as we all suffer chaos, uncertainty, power outages, rising food inflation, militancy and American hot pursuit.

Who runs nuclear-capable Pakistan today is no longer an unanswered question. There is a genuine power shift from old centres of power to elected ones. In the past they defended their incompetence by fooling us into thinking that they had little power to do anything. That was not convincing then, and it is not now.

They have the power to do good and fortunately have public support and sympathy, as well as forgiveness for past misdeeds. But all this could be subject to their performance, which has been lacklustre.

There is much evidence to suggest that members of the old power clique that were responsible for the plunder of Pakistan are back in key positions, and more such characters have been recruited and placed in responsible positions inside and outside the country.

There is, however, more to the emerging crisis of confidence in the PPP leadership — dissension within its ranks; the PMLN pulling out of the cabinet; confrontational lawyers and civil society; and the economic downturn that has hit the poor very hard.

The hope that the present elected leadership of the dominant party can address the many challenges facing the country is fast dissipating. There are no alternatives other than chaos, confrontation and even more chaos.

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

Source: Daily Times, 15/7/2008

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