A long way to go-Asif Ezdi

Judging from the comments of some of Zardari’s political associates – often a better indicator of his intentions than any promises made by the great man himself – the country may have just taken a step away from the goal of parliamentary democracy. It elected a president more in the mould of his illustrious predecessor Pervez Musharraf – head of state, head of the executive and head of the party, all rolled into one – than a constitutional figurehead like Chaudhry Fazal Ilahi or Rafiq Tarar. Zardari’s statements and actions after the election also suggest that he might not content himself with being the constitutional head of state but in addition would like to keep the two other roles of de facto head of government and leader of the party.

Although the PPP and the other coalition partners committed themselves in their statement of Aug 7 to implement the Charter of Democracy and repeal the 17th Amendment, Zardari himself has been noticeably reticent on these questions. He has also been evasive on the question whether he will retain the co-chairmanship of the party. His declaration, shortly after his election, that he would be answerable to Parliament, shows that he is having difficulties adjusting to the straitjacket of the Constitution, according to which it is the prime minister, not the president, who is the head of the executive branch and, together with the other members of the cabinet, collectively responsible to the National Assembly.

Zardari’s article in The Washington Post (Sept 4) will only feed doubts about his intentions. One of his highest priorities as president, he writes, would be an amendment of the Constitution to “bring back into balance the powers of the presidency.” The new buzzword in the lexicon of the PPP is “balance.” This is disquieting, because under the parliamentary system, the executive authority of the Federation vests in the federal government, of which the prime minister is the head. Bringing about a “balance,” as the PPP now says it will be doing, suggests that some of the executive powers taken over by Musharraf might be retained by our newly elected president.

Zardari writes further in his article that the judiciary has to be “reconstituted.” This is newspeak for the selective reappointment of some handpicked judges and amounts to a purge of the judiciary of exactly the kind that was carried out by Musharraf last November. If Zardari succeeds in his schemes, he will have fashioned a fully politicised judiciary, a feat that not even Musharraf was able to accomplish.

No amount of quibbling by Farooq Naek can hide the fact that Zardari has not allowed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to return to his post, because under an independent judiciary he fears a reopening of the corruption cases which were closed under the NRO. Zardari also opted to become the president because it gives him immunity from criminal proceedings that the more powerful office of prime minister does not.

But the taint of corruption will not be washed away by the NRO. Similarly, the presidency will continue to be handicapped by reports that Zardari was suffering from psychiatric disorders until last year. When you add to that the reputation of an unscrupulous wheeler-dealer, that is a lot of unnecessary ballast for the highest office of state.

In his article, Zardari accuses “the establishment and its allies” of having unleashed a campaign of character assassination against him. This will simply not wash. In other countries, far less serious allegations of graft or of psychological problems are held to disqualify for public office. In 1972 Senator Thomas Eagleton, candidate of the Democratic Party for vice president of the United States, was taken off the ticket two weeks after he was named, when it became known that he had undergone electroshock therapy for depression.

Now that Zardari has been elected, he can do at least two things to salvage some of the damage that allegations of corruption and questions about his psychological state have done. First, he should make a declaration of his assets and those of his family. This is not a legal requirement but it will do a lot of good to his reputation by taking away some of the sting from the corruption charges. Second, he should make public the reports of doctors who, as our high commissioner in London has said, have now declared Zardari fit to run for political office.

Zardari writes that Pakistani politics has always been a struggle between democratic forces in the country and an elite oligarchy, located exclusively in a region stretching between Lahore and Rawalpindi-Islamabad. The provinces of Sindh, the NWFP and Balochistan, as well as all of rural Punjab, he says, have often been excluded from governance. Zardari is right about the stranglehold of a small, deeply entrenched elite, not only on power but also on wealth and privilege; but he is wrong in his claim that it comes from a particular geographical region.

As Zulfikar Ali Bhutto used to say, this elite – for the most part corrupt, parasitic, decadent and rapacious – comes largely from the feudal class. It has since then been joined by others who have prospered under our corrupt government structures and an exploitative economic system. Another thing that has changed since Bhutto’s days is that many members of this elite now own properties in exclusive localities of cities like London and New York, get away with paying hardly any taxes, proudly own foreign passports and travel in expensive cars or huge SUVs accompanied by gun-toting bodyguards. Just visit the parking lot of the Parliament, if you want proof.

It is this very elite, represented out of all proportion in the Parliament which elected Zardari as president. And, let us be honest, it is going to be a very hard sell for his spin doctors to convince anyone that he does not belong to this class. He would therefore do well to refrain from playing its victim. Those who live in glass houses, as they say, should not throw stones.

The danger now is that after having captured the presidency and strengthened his hold on the judiciary, Zardari might press ahead with the “concentration of unchecked power” for which he castigates the establishment in his Washington Post article. Punjab is likely to be the scene of the next showdown with the PML-N. The PPP leadership has two potent weapons in its arsenal to wage this fight: the corruption cases against the Sharif brothers and the pending court hearings on their qualification for election to Parliament. Some PML-N leaders have declared that these cases are politically motivated. That may be true, but if they are innocent, they should welcome the opportunity to prove it in the courts. They should then call upon Zardari to do the same by standing trial before an independent court – after scrapping the NRO.

One of the greatest disservices done by Musharraf was to discredit the whole system of accountability, though not its concept. What the country needs badly is not a dismantling of the machinery of accountability, as the Senate demanded unanimously last month, but a system which enjoys the trust of the people. But this is a wish unlikely to be fulfilled as long as Zardari remains at the helm.

If Zardari truly wants to put the country on the path to stability, democracy and prosperity, he has to do at least three things:

First, he should immediately introduce legislation to undo the 17th Amendment, as he is committed to do, without linking it to other issues, like constitutional protection for the NRO or amnesty for Musharraf, on which the PML-N holds different views.

Second, he should restore all deposed judges, including the chief justice, in accordance with the Murree Declaration. An independent judiciary which enjoys the trust of the people constitutes the indispensable third pillar of state. Without it, our democratic structures will remain fragile and the shadow of political uncertainty that has been hanging over the country since the rupture of the PPP/PML-N coalition will not be removed. By restoring the judges, Zardari will also earn back some of the trust he has forfeited by repeatedly breaking his word.

Third, he should quit the leadership of the party and stop operating the prime minister through remote control. If he is not prepared to do that, he should resign as president and become prime minister.

Let us not kid ourselves that Zardari’s election signals the dawn of constitutional rule and parliamentary democracy. There is still a long way to go. The political leadership of the country is on trial. Zardari’s hardest test has yet to come.

The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service. He does not belong to the “region stretching between Lahore and Rawalpindi-Islamabad”. Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

Source: The News, 9th September, 2008


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