Democracy in the presidency- By Farahnaz Ispahani

Pakistan‘s political history can best be understood as a struggle between democratic political forces from all parts of the country and an establishment belonging to the power corridor geographically located between Lahore and Rawalpindi-Islamabad. The PPP’s decision to nominate its co-chairman Asif Zardari for the presidency is aimed at ending the monopoly of the undemocratic establishment over the highest office in the country. Mr Zardari would be Pakistan’s first national political figure to become president since the post replaced that of governor-general in 1956.

If Pakistani democracy is to be strengthened and consolidated, it is important that the office of president should be different from that of governor-general as envisaged under the colonial era. The British did not trust the natives and, therefore, wanted real power to be wielded by serving or retired military officers or civil servants. At independence in 1947, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah refused to accept Lord Mountbatten as governor-general of both India and Pakistan to establish the principle that the highest office in the land should be occupied by the political leader with most support from the people’s representatives.

After the Quaid-e-Azam’s death a year after independence, another politician, Khawaja Nazimuddin from East Bengal, served as governor-general who struggled to give the country its constitution. But the civil-military bureaucracy took charge soon after the assassination in 1951 of Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan and since then the position of head of state has remained in the hands of unrepresentative individuals. This continuation of non-political dominance by the establishment has harmed national integration and caused unrest in Pakistan’s smaller provinces and ethnic minorities.

The PPP is the only political party with support in all four provinces of Pakistan as well as Azad Kashmir and the Northern areas. Regional parties from the smaller provinces have all supported Mr Zardari’s candidacy. After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Mr Zardari represents the unity of the Pakistani federation.

The federation will continue to come under strain if the voices of the smaller provinces are not heard and the Lahore-Pindi power corridor continues to insist on its monopoly over power. Of the two parties that have fielded candidates against Mr Zardari one was created by General Ziaul Haq and the other spawned under General Pervez Musharraf. Although both now profess democracy as their political philosophy their past coupled with their being limited to one geographic region makes them unsuited to unilaterally lead the country into a democratic phase.

The PPP and Mr Zardari have articulated a clear vision for a democratic, progressive Pakistan and this has received support from other political forces. National unity and reconciliation can only be achieved under a president who is able to bring disparate political parties to the table. Anyone who insists on flying solo cannot unite our nation. Mr Zardari has demonstrated the ability to forgive and to forge coalitions. Those calling for a neutral or bureaucratic president are missing the important requirement of consensus and coalition building that must be fulfilled by Pakistan’s next president. Only President Zardari would fulfil that requirement.

To ensure continued international support for Pakistan, his views on the war against terrorism are also very clear. His positions on various issues reflect the stance of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto who loved and respected her husband through long periods of trial and tribulation until her tragic assassination. The Pakistani establishment has demonised Mr Zardari just as it demonised all popular democratic leaders in the past, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was sent to the gallows and Ms Bhutto.

None of the charges against Mr Zardari have ever been proven and the current round of fabricated allegations and rumours will also be rejected by the people. He demonstrated great character by accepting to remain in prison for eleven years including eight-and-a-half years consecutively without being convicted of any offence. Many Pakistani political leaders in the past have accepted early release as part of some deal, including Mr Sharif who went into exile instead of staying in prison.

The recent spate of negative stories about Mr Zardari makes it clear that someone is executing a hatchet job against him. It is no coincidence that confidential medical statements made to an English court were leaked to a British newspaper and unnamed officials have come out of the woodworks to talk to (primarily) British journalists.

The beneficiaries of the vice-regal system of the former Raj clearly do not like the idea of a true Pakistani native son to become president.

As is always the case whenever the Bhutto-Zardari family enters a new phase of their political struggle, certain individuals have become overactive in their outreach to the media. One of these is a gentleman who has nothing in common with the party of Ms Bhutto, the modern Pakistan People’s Party, than anyone with the last name of “Brown” would have as a spokesman for Britain’s Labour Party. The gentleman has been estranged from the PPP for decades and was a bitter opponent of Ms Bhutto. He consistently fought against her in her campaigns for prime minister and during her two terms as prime minister. Indeed, he and some other members of his branch of the Bhutto clan repeatedly have run for office against PPP candidates, and have repeatedly been thrashed at the polls. But that does not prevent him and others like him from holding forth, and receiving publicity, completely out of proportion to their political significance in Pakistan, from British newspapers. These non-entities are being given space to condemn the PPP’s co-chairman.

One of the oft-repeated charges against Mr Zardari these days is that he did not keep his promise of restoring the judges unlawfully removed from superior courts by General Musharraf. The truth is that Mr Zardari is fulfilling his promise of restoring the judges but as he had said earlier, the PPP disagrees with some people on the modalities of the judges’ restoration. Clearly, it is unfair to say that he has not kept his promise since not agreeing to some people’s view – on how to restore the judges – does not amount to a breach of promise.

Asif Zardari’s election would bring a democrat and a politician into the presidency, the last bastion of the philosophy of elite-guided democracy in our country. The only people who are uncomfortable with the idea of a Zardari presidency are those with a history of supporting dictatorship or those who favour dominance of the establishment.

The writer is a PPP MNA and a member of her party’s media team.



Source: The News September 02, 2008

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