In a growing political nightmare Sharif offers hope-Shireen M Mazari

With the PML-N breaking away from the ruling coalition in a most principled fashion, finally there is a chink of light in an increasingly nightmarish political scenario confronting Pakistan since the judicial crisis last March. Political wheeling and dealing, with our detractor the US holding sway, seemed to mark the major political actors – those holding power and those aspiring to power through the restoration of a civilian democratic architecture. So desperate were we for unadulterated democracy that we bought into promises and deals that kept being broken or postponed by the major players and with the departure of Musharraf the euphoria pushed the nightmare into the background for a while. But with the announcement of the Zardari candidature for the presidency the nightmare has returned, despite the love fest that many in the media seem to still be having with the gentleman who has reached political heights by sheer accident of marriage.

We are being told by the newly enrolled Zardari-admiring commentators that those who critique the man’s candidature do a disservice to democracy but there surely is a distinction between democracy and the tyranny of the majority? Or at least the right to differ should be seen as an essential democratic principle. Even before becoming president, and even before the departure of Musharraf, Zardari’s cohorts were being placed in lucrative positions regardless of competency, age, qualifications, experience or any other basic criteria for occupying a certain position. Our professional and highly skilled diplomats were being cast aside only to be replaced by cronies of varying ilk and in most other ministries a similar induction has been going on. Owing a major debt to the US in the form of the NRO, our relations with our longstanding strategic ally China are also being deliberately undermined, not least because we have not had an ambassador in Beijing for many months despite the completion of the Agreement process which was then abruptly and verbally halted by Zardari House!

Worse still, the whole nation was held hostage to the continuous farce of the restoration of the judges and the pre-November 3 judiciary. Although from the Zardari perspective, it made no sense to rollback the judicial clock to November 2, given the NRO, what was puzzling was why the PML-N continued to allow itself to be pulled by Zardari’s strings.

With the whole drama staged for the Zardari candidature’s announcement, the political nightmare resurfaced even as the ground realities of increasing terrorism and the growing numbers of internally displaced people rocked the polity. Even if one was to forget the past Zardari sins of commission and omission, how can one ignore the present shenanigans since the February 18 elections? With no regard for commitments, thereby demonstrating a major trust deficit, and with a desire to control every aspect of the state, a Zardari presidency is going to be a civilian dictatorship or a tyranny of the majority, rather than a reflection of a growing democratic culture. If many of us can be termed suspect in our criticism of Zardari, surely the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) cannot be held in suspicion by the PPP? And the HRCP has given a statement against the candidature of Zardari for president, citing critically valid reasons.

Already those suffering the fallout of the pre-presidential Zardari machinations can tell a tale or two, if they have not yet fled the country in terror. Of course, like so many leaders and governments before the present one, the shadow of the US continues to haunt the nation, which is now burdened by the twin terrorist threats emanating from the US on the one hand, and from the extremists and militants in our midst, on the other.

Coming back to our political nightmare. The Nawaz Sharif press conference of August 25 came like a speck of hope in this nightmarish environment. Not only did he take a principled stand, unlike his fellow coalition partners, in breaking off from the Zardari coalition, he showed a sobriety that has been missing from Zardari – whose smile is reflecting a growing “couldn’t care less” arrogance of power. Sharif truly seems to have changed from his earlier heady days of power, especially in his steadfast support for the independence of the judiciary and his responsiveness to civil society. The nomination of

Saeduzzaman Siddiqui as the PML-N’s presidential candidate also reflects the new PML-N which had committed to supporting a non-party candidate if the 17th Amendment was not revoked. This nomination of Siddiqui came despite the presence of highly venerable PML-N politicians such as Javed Hashmi, who would also have been excellent presidential candidates.

So somewhere in the politics of opportunism and the tyranny of the majority, there is now some hope that at least one of the mainstream parties can stand firm on principles. It is unfortunate that the traditionally non-feudal, left of centre ANP has altered its dynamics on many fronts, including on the US. As for the MQM-PPP marriage, clearly the latter has forgotten the bloodshed and carnage of May 12, 2007. Such are the political games of the Pakistani ruling elite.

There are those who feel the break up of the coalition is not in the “national” interest, but this is merely a short-sighted approach. If we want to see democracy strengthened, we must have a strong opposition and, for Pakistan even more essential, is to have an opposition that has stood by its principled positions. Democracy cannot be strengthened through a strong and opportunistic ruling coalition – that merely leads to a new type of authoritarianism or tyranny of the majority.

As for the PML-Q, their presidential nominee, Mushahid Hussain Syed, while controversial in many political circles, is certainly not tainted by accusations of financial corruption. Living modestly, he truly reflects professional middle class traditions and values even though his political choices and compromises have been debateable and he has many detractors. As a longstanding friend, I have often found myself on the other side of the fence but a tolerance for differences has seen the friendship continue. As for the issue of education, since it has become unfashionable since the February elections, there is no point in even talking of basic educational or professional qualifications.

But perhaps Mushahid can move his party, or what remains in tact within the Q League, towards a new coalition with PML-N to strengthen the hands of the opposition and fight the nightmarish tentacles of a Zardari-led civilian dictatorship resplendent with cronyism and intolerance and submissive to US diktat. Already the US-backed Haqqani-Durrani-Malik trio is ruling on crucial strategic issues and let us recall Foreign Minister Qureshi’s link to the US-funded Balusa Group also. Now, according to the New York Times, Zardari is being advised by Zalmay Khalilzad, the American-Afghan who has a dubious political record, has been very critical of Pakistan after his family migrated to the US from a sojourn in Islamabad and may be a rival of Karzai in the coming Afghan presidential elections. Such is Khalilzad’s contentious reputation that his own government has questioned his interaction with Zardari! But knowing Zalmay for some time, none of his advice can be good for Pakistan.

Incidentally, was it not ironic to hear Zardari, in response to a question on television soon after Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s surfacing in US custody in New York, sing praises of the US justice system and how Dr Aafia will have this benefit? Obviously no one informed him of Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib or, closer to home, Bagram. This is also US justice – especially towards Muslim prisoners.

In this continuing political nightmare of broken promises, personalised rule and cronyism, it seems we are simply replacing a military uniform with a civilian tyranny. That is why Sharif’s moving away from the Zardari-led coalition offers the only speck of democratic hope. And we are still clinging to straws.

The writer is a defence analyst. Email:

Source: The News, 27/8/2008

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