What will happen next? By Ayesha Siddiqa

 CERTAIN analysts are now happily predicting the onset of a successful transition in the country’s politics. It is argued that Pakistan has now safely started its journey towards democracy, peace and development and so the counter-argument that a sustainable change in the country requires transformation does not stand anymore.

Such views make it imperative to evaluate what has changed in Pakistan and what one should expect in the future. In order to do so, let’s see the changes that have taken place.

It is clear from the recently held presidential elections that the Pakistan People’s Party is back in power the way it was during the 1970s. In 1970-71, the PPP, which was then a new party, had emerged as a political force to reckon with under the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It had a clear majority in the two provinces of Sindh and Punjab and managed to form coalition governments with the National Awami Party in the Frontier and Balochistan provinces.

A similar situation seems to prevail now, especially in light of the presidential elections in which it obtained a two-third majority. Currently, it has a coalition government in all the four provinces. The only difference is that it does not have a majority in Punjab.

Another similarity pertains to civil-military relations. The armed forces conceded power to the civilian government of the 1970s after it was cornered as a result of an external crisis. This time the military has conceded space to the PPP after it suffered from a crisis of credibility internally and the external threat of the global war on terror.

When the PPP took power during the 1970s after 11 years of military and hybrid military rule, people were hopeful about the return of democracy. However, the popularly elected government then ruined its political credibility by taking authoritarian actions such as sacking the NAP chief minister in Balochistan, strengthening patronage politics and beefing up the military’s power. Resultantly, the army pushed its way into politics and took control of the state at the first available opportunity.

It is hoped that the present political dispensation has learnt its lessons and will not try to play the same tricks such as destabilising the opposition in Punjab. As long as the PPP and PML-N allow each other to rule peacefully, the government is likely to continue in power. What they ought to understand is that with the prime minister and the president hailing from the same political party, the option of sacking the government through the controversial Article 58-2 (b) is not possible which, in turn, means that the next time the military intervenes it would be through activating its intelligence agencies and direct action.

The use of the above-mentioned constitutional article was possible only during the 1990s when the three presidents were considered neutral by the establishment — or could be neutralised as they were not the main stakeholders. Asif Ali Zardari, on the other hand, is both the ‘owner’ and the CEO of the PPP. He is the president as well. This means that the army would have to force him and his party out through direct intervention.

Lest we get too depressed by such a doomsday scenario, let’s note that Pakistan’s current politics represents a process of continuity in which the interests of both external and various domestic forces seem to have converged at least for the time being. This is what those highlighting a successful transition are arguing.

Despite the removal of the former military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, most of his policies have continued — such as the war on terror, the privatisation of state assets (this is what the new government claimed it would do in the coming days), increase in the price of utilities at the behest of multilateral aid donors, non-restoration of the judiciary to its pre-Nov 3 position, and improving relations with external powers and regional actors.

In fact, this government will be in a better position to pursue policies because it has greater public support and political legitimacy than the previous regime. Therefore, the government can pursue the war against terror more efficiently and vigorously which would mean that the cooperation and friendly links with Pakistan’s prime patron, the US, will also continue and we might have a chance to see Washington supporting a civilian regime rather than a military dispensation. Many believe that this is bound to bring greater stability to the country.

However, continuity itself is not a guarantee of structural change in the political system that those arguing for a transition appear to ignore completely. The power structure and the shape, interests and behaviour of the ruling elite will remain the same.

At least three features of the political system will remain unchanged. First, the system of patronage politics will be the same. In fact, patronage politics will both strengthen and deepen as the cost of living increases and opportunities remain static due to structural problems such as less socio-economic and human resource development. Although Islamabad claims to have increased the literacy rate, the fact is that functional literacy, which allows citizens to become skilled workers, remains low. The job market depends on the public sector and an individual’s alignment with those in power. Under the circumstances, every party will provide advantages to its own supporters and not to others.

Second, a part of patronage politics is the shape of the ruling elite which will remain the same. It will continue to include the landed-feudal, big business, industrialists, the military, the clergy and the militants via the intelligence agencies. The common interest of these stakeholders is to remain in power for which they pursue different means. Another common denominator is the exploitation of ordinary people, a pattern that will remain unchanged. Although Islamabad proposes to fight the terrorists, there are many who will continue to survive as they might be put to use at some later stage.

Third, civil-military relations are not likely to change. Currently, the military is not eager to create problems for the civilian dispensation and vice versa. But this also means that the political government will not take the opportunity to build and strengthen institutional mechanisms to improve the balance in its favour (the new president has talked about reducing the budget of the presidency with no mention of the defence budget).

There is no plan to harness and check the economic and political power of the armed forces. Recently, the army announced its plan to sell what it considers its own land to build the new GHQ. One wonders if the PPP regime will challenge the army’s decision to unilaterally sell state land.

Given the aforementioned pattern one is reminded of a joke about a boy whose passion for slingshots became a nuisance for his family and neighbours. The father put him through extensive therapy only to find that the boy could not get rid of his obsession. One wonders if history is even remotely therapeutic for our ruling elite.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst. ayesha.ibd@gmail.comSource: Daily Dawn, 12/9/2008

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