AS political developments rapidly unfold in Pakistan, it appears that Mr Zardari will now become Mr President. Is this just an existential irony of history or Pakistan’s phenomenal misfortune?
The answer lies in whether one regarded the post-Feb 18 period as a promise for change or a repeat of the same old thing. To an observer from afar, it is now clear that the poor huddled masses of Pakistan — in giving the PPP a narrow majority to form a government at the centre — also desired political accommodation and a new era of legal and social justice. But this hope for change has been dashed.
Killing hope, in the Pakistani context, is about the mind-numbing dexterity displayed by Mr Zardari to turn this narrow win around — and effectively to achieve absolute majority through cold social engineering moves in order to have a choke-hold on institutional power. He is sitting in the driver’s seat and will soon control the president’s office, while his party occupies the offices of the prime minister and the speaker of the National Assembly and controls the justice system.
But, not content with this kind of absolutism, Zardari and his henchmen (and one henchwoman) have been playing all kinds of games to block the reinstatement of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in order to ensure once more that a docile and timid judiciary will quietly acquiesce to the will of the mighty feudal lord. The current moves to expand the high court benches and eventually the Supreme Court are all efforts to dilute the powers of the chief justice, should his restoration ever come to pass.
In reaching this pinnacle of absolutism, some could argue that Zardari out-manoeuvred Nawaz Sharif and displayed the skills of a shrewd politician. Granted that politics is about expediency. But elementary decency is not usually jettisoned for the instrumental rationality of that brief gain thereby justifying the means to obtain it. Pakistan’s convulsive state, its precariousness, required that political leaders tread the path ever more carefully. This was not to be, and now the country is going to be polarised by the very real likelihood of a Zardari presidency.
On who should be the president, the media and a host of people in Pakistan have made very thoughtful comments. The consensus is for someone who is a bridge-builder, a visionary and whose character is beyond reproach. But it seems that these words of wisdom have fallen on deaf ears and all sides have thrown caution to the wind for their short-term gains.The irony is that the MQM, the party most vociferous about feudalism’s elimination, wants a feudal lord to lead the country! And not to be outdone with a mere proposal, the party’s stalwarts went one further and trotted off to the Sindh High Court to file Zardari’s nomination papers.
Considering the ease with which one coalition was disbanded and another formed, it is becoming obvious that in Zardari’s mind Nawaz Sharif was expendable in favour of the MQM and the ANP, which also has quietly conducted itself as the PPP’s B-team. In the unfolding of these developments, Sharif has no one other than himself to blame for his lackadaisical dealings with Zardari.
Beyond Sharif, political leaders of the PPP and other parties — in short the political elite — appear asleep at the switch as the country bleeds, burns and ordinary people are made destitute, their lives wrecked by the painful squeeze of runaway inflation, lack of electricity and clean drinking water. This is not to mention the displacement of about half a million people from Bajaur and the war zone that the Sarhad has become.
It is painful to see that the PPP, its roti, kapra aur makan slogan notwithstanding, has been callously unreflective about continuing the neoliberal economic policies — of privatisation, deregulation and the eager embrace of the market — of the Musharraf era. The current rulers have even accepted the impositions of the IMF without a whimper, as subsidies were removed and electricity rates skyrocketed. Amid 16-hour blackouts, the government thoughtlessly announced another price hike for the residents of Karachi.
The private owners of KESC, without making much new investment, benefit from the people’s misery as the latter wallow in the sweltering heat and get crushed under the burden of price hikes. Privatisation of the KESC really has made a bad situation much worse. Other relatively stable organisations, such as the Oil and Gas Development Corporation, are also said to be on the privatisation anvil.
Pakistan’s late romance with neoliberalism, especially the push towards privatisation, comes as a surprise, and at a huge cost of widening the wealth divide. Indeed, the surprise is compounded by the lack of resistance or challenge to this neoliberal turn, despite the enormous dislocations.
Latin American states which took the lead in the 1970s with their marketisation policies, and later rushed towards privatisation and deregulation, are now much more sanguine about past policies. As Venezuela leads the charge against neoliberalism, countries from Argentina and Ecuador to Uruguay are turning their backs on this corrosive policy. But, official Pakistani economists in contrast, see privatisation as a godsend tap to obtain foreign exchange on the cheap. They are in for a shock and need to wake up and smell their neoliberal brew.
Returning to the very real possibility of a Zardari presidency, information is coming fast and loose about our feudal lord. One is about the Swiss prosecutor who has withdrawn money laundering charges and has released the frozen $60m apparently back to Zardari. Then, there is another about the cosy relationship that the PPP leader has had with Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s UN ambassador who has been called on the carpet by none other than Richard Boucher, Washington’s point man for Pakistan.
The third piece is about Mr Zardari’s mental health issues. This is an area about which one has to be sensitive and non-judgmental. However, the would-be president needs to come clean not just about his mental and physical health, but also about how he amassed this enormous fortune, why he was charged with money-laundering, and the nature of his relationship with US officials.
Given these circumstances and the challenges that lie ahead, Pakistan will be well-served if Zardari withdraws his nomination in favour of an individual who is less partisan. I hope he takes heed.
The writer teaches politics at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Source: Daily dawn, 1/9/2008