Democracy after the coalition breakup in Pakistan

Nasim Zehra

The inevitable has happened, but perhaps much sooner than expected. Facts, perceptions and interpretations combine generating many stories on the causes of the breakup. The only obvious cause is the inability of the PPP to honour the written agreement signed by Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif on Aug 7. The PPP leadership has put forward endless reasons for not honoring the commitment immediately. These include commitments made to “facilitators” of Gen Parvez Musharraf’s resignation, the PML-N’s refusal to agree to Gen Musharraf’s indemnity, the politically controversial character of Justice Iftikhar Chaudary, the PML-N leader’s strident position on the US-led War on Terror raising concerns abroad, the necessity to first elect a president before tackling other issues, and so on. The overarching explanation was the PPP leader’s much criticised statement that since agreements are not sacred their contents are susceptible to changing political scenarios. In politics, the PPP now argues, understandings are arrived on approaches and not on specifics. In a direct attack on his coalition partner the PPP leaders also argue that Nawaz Sharif’s inflexibility and his keenness to score political mileage over the judges’ restoration, and his election campaign issue, led to the breakup.

The PPP’s charge list is long, but not completely convincing. It fails to address the basic question of what changed so radically between Aug 7 and Aug 18 to force the PPP leadership to go back on the written agreement which clearly states that the judges will be restored “within one day” of either the impeachment or resignation of the president. No specifics have been shared, if there are any, either with the PML-N interlocutors or with the public. Asif Zardari’s own contention was that the president’s rapid exit was contrary to his expectations, that it would take a few weeks and give him enough time to “prepare the ground” for the restoration. There was also some talk about whether the agreement had been read before being signed.

The many explanations for the breakup and the six-month-long unique coalition experiment between Pakistan’s two national parties are a window into the respective politics of these two political contestants. And with the breakup of the coalition the battle-lines are already drawn. If the PML-N was compelled to make public the agreement signed in secrecy, the PPP has retaliated by reminding Nawaz Sharif of the December 2000 agreement that he made with the Musharraf government for his departure to Saudi Arabia. Reportedly Zardari also told a foreign newspaper that Nawaz Sharif had been away from democratic forces for too long and that he would attempt to take him along with democratic forces. Perhaps the most telling comment on what may follow as political bickering heightens was made by the PPP’s key attack man Mr Babar Awan. Referring to the PML-N he said, “First they pursued kharchee (money) politics and now its parchee (agreement) politics.” Notwithstanding Zardari’s televised apology if he “hurt” Nawaz Sharif and appeal that Sharif return to the coalition fold, the velvet gloves are off. Political battles and political realignments are already underway. With Maulana Fazul Rehman now seeming to switch away from the PPP camp the predictable “surprises” of Pakistani politics too have begun! Will reopening political battles not undermine the earlier commitment of the two parties to reform and strengthen the parliamentary system will be a key issue.

The first battle, over the presidency, is also underway. Even if the election results are an almost foregone conclusion the three-way competition between three candidates with completely different backgrounds will make the run up to the competition interesting. The issues that will be raised during the campaign by Justice Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui and Mushahid Hussain will further expose the contradictions between the stated goals of politicians and between their practical politics. The debate will further reinforce the nation’s demand for rule of law and for accountable exercise of state and executive power.

While exciting political times are guaranteed there are four key issues that will determine how Pakistan’s democracy will progress in the coming days and months. One, the question of concentration of power. With all the key positions, including the president the prime minister, the National Assembly speaker and generally the PPP-indebted chief justice, the likelihood of institutional checks and balances on the exercise of power would be difficult. Clearly in a democratic setup members of the Parliament and the Senate would be able to critique unconstitutional exercise of power. Yet, with all levers of power in the hands of one party, accountability would not be easy–in fact, not even quite possible. Already the Senate and Parliament committees are in the PPP’s control.

Two, with the all-powerful co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, in the presidential position, the likelihood of presidential powers being greatly reduced would be minimal. Even if Mr Zardari was to surrender 58(2)(b) to Parliament the other presidential powers outlined in the Charter of Democracy (CoD) may not be removed as agreed at the signing of the CoC on May 15, 2006. According to the CoD “the appointment of governor, the three services chiefs and the CJCSC shall be made by the chief executive who is the prime minister as per the 1973 Constitution.” In a continuing environment of trust the talk of balancing power between the president and the prime minister would have had different implication but now polarised and even maybe an embittered polity the debate maybe reduced to rhetoric and numbers game alone. Accordingly the debate on constitutional matter would be polarised along party line. Strengthening of the Parliament and the prime minister remains key challenge.

Three, it remains unclear if Asif Zardari will give up the party chairmanship while after the president. Media reports are already drawing a comparison between Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Ayub. Ayub did not give up the Muslim League. presidency while Bhuttto remained chairman of the PPP. These analogies are irrelevant to present-day Pakistan in which there is much greater consciousness of the need to keep state and executive position a political and separate from party politics. Equally the people of Pakistan have experienced disastrous outcomes of concentration of power and politicisation the entire government institution. The decade of the nineties was instructive.

Four, given the likely concentration of power in the hands of the PPP without a truly independent judiciary, the lingering fear of the imagined or real Establishment within this truly national political party, there is strong likelihood that PPP would make the state apparatus and state resources largely subservient to party politics. The party, despite its corruption and dynastic allegations, is one with a political history of martyrs, of long imprisonment, of political victimisation and of genuine people’s support to its credit, may well be on the road to developing its new leadership cult. The cult building is political and legitimate too, but with a cult and party expanding agenda and all powers of levers in its control it would take extra effort to ensure that the PPP-controlled state would serve its citizen in an unbiased way.

The only way to check partisan behaviours of state institutions would be the resort to an independent judiciary. That for now seems to be missing. The environment in which such concentration of power is taking place the role of the media becomes critical even if the media can be an effective narrator of the excesses committed by partisan state against some if its citizens but it cannot necessarily provide practical respite. The restoration of the judiciary will remain a critical issue whose outcome will influence the texture and strength of Pakistani democracy. The damage to the coalition is irreparable. The challenge now will be to ensure the democratic system through these ups and downs strengthens not weaken and becomes relevant for the csonstitutional rights, progress and defence of Pakistanis.

The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst

Source: The News, 27/8/2008

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