Pakistan Politics: A step forward or back to square one?

By Murtaza Razvi

THERE’S got to be a bigger reason than the venue for the absence yesterday of Mr Zardari from the rather uneventful ruling coalition heads’ press conference held at the Punjab House in Islamabad by Messrs Nawaz Sharif, Asfandyar Wali Khan and Maulana Fazlur Rahman.

The three leaders said they had the erstwhile king-maker or soon-to-be-king’s concurrence by telephone on the contents of what they told the media. His detractors may ask what’s to stop Mr Zardari from going back on a telephone conversation when he has not honoured the agreed deadlines in writing to restore the judges.

As details of the latest agreement between the PPP and the PML-N become clear, there is a lot of room for interpretation either way, for the restoration of the judges; all judges, some judge, minus one, two, etc. in the week ahead as the National Assembly debates the issue.

Five days went by between President Musharraf’s resignation and the ensuing debate on the restoration of the judges among coalition partners. Now another five are sought to draft, move and possibly get the resolution approved in the National Assembly before any, some or all the judges can be hoped to be restored. Mr Sharif said his understanding was that by Wednesday next the whole process would be completed, while Mr Khan interjected to say that once the resolution was tabled the debate could stretch into Friday.

It is clear that while the tabling of a resolution in the NA and a debate on it are pledged, the restoration of the judges sacked on Nov 3, 2007 by President Musharraf is not. That is why perhaps Mr Sharif was quick to add that his party would wait until Wednesday; if all the judges are restored the coalition holds, if not his party would walk out of government.

In saying so Mr Sharif could not have been simply his naïve self once again, as is believed of him by some, for the vendetta he displayed while pushing the PPP for Mr Musharraf’s impeachment tells another tale. So does his party’s cajoling and shoving of the PPP with threats to quit the coalition on the judges issue time and again, even as coalition partners sought time to re-examine the modalities. Now Mr Sharif gives another unilateral deadline of Wednesday. What’s it with the man and his obsession with deadlines which apparently none of his coalition partners take seriously?

While Mr Zardari’s smooth-operator politics since the Feb election has come in for a lot of debate, Mr Sharif’s strategy of tagging along while threatening to quit the coalition has attracted little attention. Indeed the posturing on both sides has invited much scrutiny but substantially little has been surmised from it. This is perhaps because Mr Zardari plays the more interesting, guessing game, while Mr Sharif seems to say it as it is. But is it really as it is?

The politics of brinkmanship is painting neither side pretty. Five months into government, and the coalition has yet to make its presence felt. Given his posturing on the issue all this time, has Mr Zardari finally had what will appear to be a change of heart on the judges’ reinstatement? Or has he used it to extract maximum concessions out of the PML-N — securing the presidency for his party, letting Mr Musharraf off without accountability under foreign pressure and undertakings? So be it. It is time the government got on with the business of effectively running the country.

But given the PPP co-chairman’s persona, these sound too logical, optimistic and, to many, charitable conclusions to be drawn from the events as they have unfolded since he has taken charge of the party’s affairs. Two of the PPP’s most devout and intelligent leaders, Makhdoom Amin Fahim and Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, respectively, have been giving odd vibes.

While the Makhdoom admittedly has shaky legs to stand on within or outside his party in the aftermath of his disagreements with Mr Zardari since after the Feb election, the barrister has been very cautious not to sever his links with the party even as he vociferously lobbies for the restoration of Justice Chaudhry. That Mr Ahsan is a man of logic and proven integrity is the only hope that something good and reassuring may come out of the debate in the NA over the judges’ issue.

If not, the country will see more chaos in the weeks ahead. If the ruling coalition unravels, the threat of destabilisation posed by the Taliban and an economy on a downward spiral will not be good news for democracy.

Source: Daily Dawn, 23/8/2008

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