The honeymoon period —Mariam Mufti

Non-stop criticism has made the government defensive and has stunted its ability to do anything right without second-guessing media reaction first

The significance of the first hundred days in measuring the performance of a newly elected government has its roots in the take-over of the US government by Franklin D Roosevelt during the Great Depression. During his first hundred days, he implemented the first phase of the New Deal, revamped the bureaucracy and sent numerous bills to Congress, all of which were successfully passed and enacted without much dissent or debate.

However the first hundred days are also known as the “honeymoon period” — the time given to the new government to settle in.

This is the first time in Pakistan’s political history that a government’s performance has been measured in the first hundred days specifically. Nearly every newspaper has carried an article reviewing the performance of the new democratic dispensation, so much so that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani felt compelled to make the focus of his maiden speech a review of his government’s performance in the first hundred days of power.

The opposition has also not held back either. In the Sindh Assembly the opposition issued a fact sheet listing the failures of the government. PMLQ too, in solidarity with the opposition in Sindh, has put up a white paper on the government’s hundred days in power on their official website.

There is nothing wrong with holding the government accountable for its actions within the first month, first hundred days or even the first year. A democratically elected government should expect to be held accountable for their performance from the get go.

However, let’s be realistic. The PPP government has had to deal with the fallout of the last eight years and the mistakes of the previous government. Second, the political situation in the country has been extremely volatile what with sky-rocketing food and fuel prices, an increasingly tense security situation in the Frontier, the lawyers’ movement and the exigencies of coalition-building.

So what happened to the honeymoon period? The media has been critical of every step taken by the government thus far. And while I agree that it is their prerogative to be critical, non-stop criticism has made the government defensive and has stunted its ability to do anything right without second-guessing media reaction first.

The effect of the latter can be positive: at least the government is forced to look before it leaps. Instead what has happened is that the government has hardly leapt at all!

It is clear that the people of Pakistan expect our so-called “freely and fairly” elected government to guide the country out of the present chaos of governance. Taking over during the Depression, FDR managed to do so through presidential decree and overwhelming Congress activity as is evident from the legislative whirlwind of the first hundred days. But in Pakistan the major criticism of governance has been that the parliament is not sovereign. Instead, it is a “rubber stamp” parliament and most legislation is passed through executive order.

So in order to govern, the PPP should have followed precedent and used executive orders to storm the parliament and deal with the present crises.

Of course, then the PPP leadership would have been solely responsible for most of the legislative changes and our PM would have effectively been a puppet and the parliament entirely sidelined. To a certain extent that is what we have witnessed with the unfolding of the constitutional package with its 70 or so amendments.

The people of Pakistan also expected that there would be a reversal in the legislation that was passed post-Nov 3, 2007. However not much action has been taken towards that end. In the PPP’s defence, the party is operating with the backdrop of a divided government, where it has control of the lower house, and does not hold majority in the upper house, which is still in the hands of the opposition party.

It should be remembered that FDR was successful in passing legislation effectively because he had a supportive parliament that had a majority of members from the Democratic Party.

At the same time, it is also to be considered that the federal government, until the PMLN walked out on its ministerial responsibilities, was a government shared by two parties which made for strange bedfellows. The PPP government also has its hands tied behind its back because of the NRO.

The people of Pakistan also expected the government to cut costs in order to meet the growing fiscal deficit. One way to achieve this was to reduce the number of ministries. Contrarily, FDR during his first hundred days significantly expanded government administration and sowed the seeds of the New Deal.

In Pakistan, the coalition government started on the right foot by appointing 24 federal ministers, but then lost half of them to coalition politics between the PPP and PMLN. Today, each mister has at least two to three portfolios. The ministers are over-extended in their functions, over-worked, mentally exhausted and completely inaccessible.

And with the unprecedented growth of the media and the plethora of news channels waiting in the wings for a scoop, none of the government officials have gotten used to prioritising their time between photo-ops, media appearances and actual running of the government.

My point is simple. The first hundred days of FDR’s government were geared towards saving the country from an acute economic crisis; they were about altering the relationship between the public and private sectors by giving a new vitality to the executive over the legislature. He got away with it.

Pakistan’s circumstances are different. Granted we are also in the throes of an economic crisis and that people are desperately looking for respite, but even though we have a popularly elected government, we certainly do not have the institutions and structures to support a ‘legislative whirlwind’ or even leaders with a vision akin to FDR’s.

I’ll conclude with another Americanism. Bush has been known to say more than once that “there is no magic wand” to reduce gas and oil prices. There is no magic wand for Pakistan’s problems either, but the PPP did have a window of opportunity. The government could have alleviated some of the problems just by taking quick, unilateral actions. Many feel disheartened because we are at the same place as we were in March 2008.

But anyhow, as this article has argued, Pakistan’s problems are complex. The new government at this point is really just trying to find steady ground to stand on. At the very least, the government will endeavour to survive until Senate elections next year. If by then, they do not have their house in order, more leeway to them will be almost impossible.

Mariam Mufti is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on the party system of Pakistan at the Johns Hopkins University

Source: daily times, 21/7/2008

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