Pakistan Politics: The government’s predicament — Dr Hasan-Askari

These problems have been compounded by the incoherence of the policy makers and their failure to pull in one direction, either for mobilising widespread political support for their policies or to create a working consensus among the coalition partners

The federal coalition government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) faces a barrage of criticism for not meeting the expectations that followed its assumption of power in March this year.

Earlier, the PPP emerged as the single largest party in the outcome of the February 18 elections, engendering the hope that it would cause a definite break from the Musharraf-dominated centralised political order. This hope was strengthened when the second major party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and the Awami National Party (ANP) decided to join the coalition government. The coalition was further strengthened by the inclusion of an Islamic party, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazlur Rahman (JUIF).

This was the biggest-ever coalition in Pakistan’s political history but it could not maintain its momentum for long. The principal partners, the PPP and the PMLN, diverged on the issues of the restoration of the ousted judges and the removal of President Pervez Musharraf through impeachment.

Whereas the PMLN pursued these issues single-mindedly, in total disregard of constitutional and operational realities, the PPP pushed these issues to the periphery of its agenda.

The PMLN’s consequent withdrawal from the cabinet placed the PPP on the defensive and made it pull together all sorts of arguments for not restoring the judges and for opposing Musharraf’s impeachment. It was ironic that the PPP, after having suffered the most during Musharraf’s active rule, favoured Musharraf.

The PPP’s disposition on these issues could be attributed to the reincarnation of the PPP under its co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari against the backdrop of the US–facilitated arrangement with Pervez Musharraf for the return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan in October 2007.

The PPP-led government faced additional criticism on account of its inadequate attention to other political and socio-economic issues. Politically active circles as well as a large number of ordinary people began to entertain reservations about the government’s capacity to effectively address multiple challenges like the electric-power shortages, oil and petrol prices, acute price hike of food items and other goods of daily use as well as shortages of some of these goods, especially wheat and wheat flour, and the lack of personal security.

The PPP’s current predicament can be explained with reference to three sets of factors: the legacy of the Musharraf era and its unwillingness to break away from it; external factors beyond the full control of the government; and incoherence and indecisiveness on the part of the leadership.

The current government inherited a host of problems from the Musharraf-PMLQ government. This included religious extremism and militancy, a disjointed war on terrorism, regional disharmony and internal strife in parts of Balochistan, price hikes and food shortages and accentuated socio-economic disparity.

Several external factors have also constrained the government. These include global oil prices, heavy dependence on external economic assistance, unstable and certain political and economic conditions in Afghanistan and the strong interest of the major powers to control militancy and violence in and around Pakistan.

These problems have been compounded by the incoherence of the policy makers and their failure to pull in one direction, either for mobilising widespread political support for their policies or to create a working consensus among the coalition partners.

At times, the key government officials make high-sounding statements which are not followed up by policy measures. For example, the prime minister has issued several statements about the restoration of the judges and he has also said that the nation would soon hear good news regarding the judges. These statements conflicted with the policy of the government and the party on the restoration of the judges. If the judges were to be restored through a constitutional amendment, how could the prime minister talk of good news when the government did not have a two-thirds majority in the upper house?

The law minister has offered fresh appointments to the ousted judges. One wonders if this policy has formally been approved by the prime minister and the cabinet. Further, so many issues have been lumped together in one constitutional amendment that the political parties in the parliament cannot develop consensus on the amendment in the present situation.

Several other developments have created the perception that the government is unable to keep its house in order. The role of the Advisor on Interior Affairs in postponing the by-elections showed that he could act on his own without talking to the prime minister.

Other policy mishaps include the mismanagement of the first address to the nation by the prime minister and the shifting of the ISI’s control to the Interior Ministry and then withdrawal of this order under pressure from the Army.

Like the federal cabinet and parliament during 2002-2007, the present cabinet and parliament are in search of a credible and autonomous role. In the past, President Musharraf dominated them. Now, the co-chairman of the PPP and his close associates, some of whom are non-elected, have taken command. As they call the shots, the prime minister and the cabinet cannot assume a commanding role.

This has caused three problems for the PPP government.

First, the increased credibility crisis has enabled the PMLQ to openly criticise the government, disregarding the fact that not long ago the PMLQ had no role in policy making except endorsing whatever Pervez Musharraf did. Now, the PMLQ is projecting itself as the champion of constitutionalism, effective governance and strengthening political institutions.

Second, President Musharraf has also recovered from the shock caused by the electorate in February. He is also convinced that the present government can no longer remove him. This perception has enabled him to resurface on the political scene with advisories to the government on addressing internal and external problems.

Third, Nawaz Sharif is working hard to strengthen his party, the PMLN, in Punjab by invoking popular sentiments for the restoration of the judges, anti-Musharraf sentiments and alienation from the PPP government. His game plan is to consolidate the party’s position in Punjab so that the PMLN can form the Punjab government without the support of the PPP, and use its strength in the province to bargain at the federal level.

The PPP needs to undertake an in-house, dispassionate review of what has gone wrong with its governance and party management. It needs to understand why the impression that the present government and the party leadership lack the capacity to fully address these challenges has gained ground.

Personnel changes may be required to make the government more responsive to the problems and aspirations of the people

The PPP also needs to change its approach from one focused on the co-chairman and his close associates to a broadly based consultative approach that gives greater importance to elected members.

There is much alienation and dispiritedness among senior party leaders and other activists who have been sidelined by the post-Bhutto leadership. The party needs to benefit from their experience and clout with party workers and voters. They can help to groom a new leadership and prepare them to take major responsibilities in the future. Leaders need to be grown from below rather than be thrust from above.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Source: Daily Times, 3/8/2008


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