Task before new Pakistani president

By Anwar Syed

THE chosen representatives of the people, supposedly embodying their collective wisdom and virtue, have elected Asif Ali Zardari to live in the majestic and luxuriously appointed presidential mansion in Islamabad for the next five years, and possibly longer.

If in sending Mr Zardari to the presidency the PPP elders thought they were ‘kicking him upstairs’, where he would be rendered harmless, they made an error of judgment. Nor of any avail will be his own post-election statements affirming the supremacy of parliament and the president’s subservience to it, and saying that he will not oppose moves to trim the president’s powers.

He may have made these statements because they sound good, not because he intends to implement them. He may, for appearances’ sake, allow constitutional amendments that reduce the president’s role to that of a titular head of state. The likelihood is that even after such amendments have been made he will continue to have a directing role in this country’s governance. What can be done to mitigate this perversity?

If he cares for appearances, we recommend that he quit the co-chairman’s office in the PPP. He represents the unity of this republic; he is president of the people of all its regions and persuasions. It is therefore in the fitness of things that he should belong to no political party. Second, as we all know, his influence with the PPP notables derives not from the party office he holds but from the fact that he was married to the late Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the party’s founder. The party notables show him deference not because he has done anything to earn it but because he is related to the Bhutto family.

Given Pakistan’s political culture, it would not be improper for President Zardari to share his thoughts on issues of public policy with the prime minister. In doing so he should recognise his own limitations. He has had no experience of statecraft. He may in time become statesmanlike but that remains to be seen. The best course of action for him would then be to limit himself to participation in the making of high policy, leaving its implementation to the officials concerned. There are several issues on which a coherent policy has to be made. Mr Zardari says he wants parliament to be supreme.

In that case, after he and the prime minister and any others whom they may have wanted to consult have come up with the analysis of a problem, including the means of meeting it, they might take their thinking to parliament for its input.

The foremost among these issues is the challenge posed by the militants. There are members in both Houses of parliament who maintain that dialogue with the militants, and not resort to force, is the way to go. Mr Zardari can join the prime minister and his cabinet in identifying the terms of reference for this dialogue, which is another name for negotiation. If it is to go anywhere, the parties must be willing to make compromises.

A political issue involving, let us say, access to material resources, may be resolved through mutual concessions made as the dialogue proceeds. But mutual concessions are not likely to be made, and dialogue will then have no function, when the contention is ideological, involving issues of right and wrong.

In our present situation the government may usefully negotiate with non-ideological militants concerning local autonomy, management of local resources and local customary law.

However, there can be no dialogue with the Taliban who want to enforce their version of the Sharia, which most of the rest of us do not accept. They themselves want to be the enforcers. They want to abolish the state of Pakistan as it is presently constituted and establish their own dictatorship in our land. Mr Zardari’s government should bring out these facts in parliament. If Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Maulana Fazlur Rahman still want a dialogue, let them be sent as a delegation to talk to Baitullah Mehsud and then let us see what they bring back.

The present government, like its predecessors, spends hundreds of billions of rupees more than the amount it raises in revenues. It borrows at home and abroad from governments, banks and international lending institutions.

It gets the State Bank of Pakistan to print money which it spends, driving inflation to unprecedented levels. It runs huge budget and trade deficits. If Mr Zardari wants to do something about this crisis, he should get the prime minister and his deputies to devise ways of reducing expenditures. They should also reconsider globalisation, free trade and wholesale privatisation which do not suit us.

Crime control and restoration of law and order are equally urgent problems. The task here is to identify the means needed, set up and streamline the relevant organisations, and find the money to pay for them. There are other problems that need to be sorted out — insurgency in Balochistan, status of local governments, management of water resources, revenue-sharing, and delivery of essential services, relations with America and India, among other things.

We can be sure that Mr Zardari will have a directing role in this country’s governance to some degree. We do not know if he has the will and wisdom required of a good director. We have to date seen him handle only one major issue of governance (that relating to the deposed judges), and his performance in that case has not been reassuring. He did not want them to be reinstated but did not want to say so.

Some of them have been ‘reappointed’ upon swearing to uphold the constitution mutilated by Pervez Musharraf, thus indicating they have been made to affirm that Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule and the actions he took in its pursuance, were valid and that their own refusal to honour it was wrong.

Delay as a way of tiring out the other side was Mr Zardari’s favourite tactic in dealing with problems. It worked with the judges who were deposed more than 10 months ago. But it will not work with the Taliban, restoration of law and order or rectification of the budget and trade deficits. Let us then hope (and pray) that he will learn and adopt other ways of resolving the nation’s problems.

The writer is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts.


Source: Daily Dawn, 14/9/2008

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