Review of 2008: between hope and despair

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Dr Maleeha Lodhi

Even by the grim standards of Pakistan’s history, 2008 was a tumultuous year. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto cast a pall of gloom at the year’s outset. But the high point of a politically charged year was the February 18 election, which represented a moment of hope and anticipation in marking the return of civilian rule.

As the democratic transition gathered pace with the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf and the Army’s withdrawal from politics, this opened up an opportunity for the country’s new rulers to set Pakistan on to a new course. There was much public goodwill to tap into during the initial months to chart such a direction. Expectations are always higher of civilian governments even though they inherit a troublesome legacy. And so it was with the PPP-led coalition.

But the vision and leadership needed to address the daunting challenges was nowhere in evidence when the new dispensation was tested by tough domestic issues and an exceedingly complex international environment. This contributed to one of the shortest honeymoon periods for an elected government. Amid deepening economic gloom, deteriorating security, prolonged political wranglings and broken promises on the judiciary, the shifting public mood mirrored the hopes and disappointments that accompanied every tortuous turn of events.

Opinion polls captured this growing mood of pessimism, as hope turned to despair. Between April and December 2008, the number of people who were hopeful dropped substantially, from 60 to 15 per cent, according to Gallup. Another survey by the International Republican Institute found that an overwhelming number of Pakistanis (88%) saw their country headed in the wrong direction.

This could mostly be ascribed to the inability of the government to reverse the widespread perception of drift and disarray by setting a sense of public purpose and direction to inspire faith in the future. To be sure, the constraints imposed by a difficult legacy limited the government’s room to manoeuvre. But rather than set policy priorities and organize itself to deal with them, the Zardari-led government responded in sporadic and adhoc fashion to the challenges at hand.

This was evident, for example in its response to the deepening power crises – not of course of its making. But its tardy effort to manage it was prompted only by the outbreak of riots and protests. Dithering on critical issues and a muddling through approach produced rule without governance and revealed a startling disconnect between the urgency of the country’s problems and the infirmity of official responses.

The political manoeuvring that followed the election so consumed the energies of the government that it distracted it from addressing pressing policy issues, especially steering the economy out of one of its severest crises. For months the government functioned without a finance minister. This lack of urgency accelerated the run on confidence and was reflected in the flight of capital. It also fed the image of a government more interested in power plays than public policy. Spurning and then embracing the IMF not just signified the government’s belated admission of reality, but arguably its lack of experience and expertise.

The politics of wheeling and dealing initially paid the PPP leader handsome political dividends, including his elevation to the Presidency. But the manipulative skills that secured the country’s highest office offered no guarantee of effective governance. It also came at the cost of shattering any chance of a consensus government that could evolve national, bipartisan solutions to the plethora of problems afflicting the country. Outmanoeuvred, the Muslim League led by Mian Nawaz Sharif walked out of the coalition. But while the former Prime Minister’s approval ratings went up, that of the incumbent leadership declined precipitously.

The gap between the public’s constitutional aspirations and reality widened, not just as a consequence of the PPP’s disinclination to deliver on the judiciary and the Seventeenth Amendment, but also by the post-Presidential election configuration of power, in which effective executive authority was exercised by President Zardari. This whittled down Prime Ministerial powers, continuing a trend that began in 2002. Together with the proclivity to use Parliament to affirm rather than shape decisions, this translated into non-adherence with the most fundamental aspect of Parliamentary democracy.

The ruling party followed a familiar political tradition in giving primacy to consolidating personal power rather than building institutional support within the polity. Not only were the autocratic powers of the 17th Amendment retained, but the personalization of this power and its exercise in an unstructured mode of decision-making resulted in unsteady and erratic governance. The President’s reluctance to delegate authority betrayed a surprising lack of confidence in his own team. It also made his unfamiliarity with statecraft more evident and exposed the government to higher risk of mistakes and missteps in the absence of institutional checks. For example the ill-conceived attempt to place the ISI under the Interior Ministry reflected surprising naiveté, and ended predictably in an inglorious retreat.

Another case in point was the government’s faltering handling of the crisis with India, which was triggered by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. From a hoax call (supposedly received from the Indian foreign minister), that almost led to a military mobilization, to the flip flops in official responses, this became amateur hour in Islamabad.

2008 witnessed more terrorist violence than the previous year, posing the most serious threat to Pakistan’s security. Terrorist-related violence reached a record high, with the number of suicide bombings and killings exceeding those in 2007. The NWFP and FATA were obviously the most severely hit but the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad dramatised the militants’ reach and the impunity with which they could strike at the capital.

While the threat of militancy grew official responses assumed the form of fire fighting actions undertaken under the exigency of circumstances rather than as part of a comprehensive strategy. While the effectiveness of the most intense and prolonged military operation in Bajaur is yet to be determined, the fragile gains in Swat have already been reversed by the resurgence of militancy after the collapse of the peace agreement.

Despite a government effort to elicit Parliamentary backing for counter-militancy, the debate in the House exposed significant differences rather than a unified approach. The resolution subsequently adopted was long on rhetoric and short on strategy. The lack of a political consensus on how to address the threat of militancy had a grave and deleterious bearing on framing a publicly-backed strategy that could deal with both the short and long term dimensions of the challenge.

Throughout the year, Pakistan seemed to be caught between more aggressive actions by the militants on the one hand and the United States on the other. The dramatic rise in attacks by unmanned Predator aircraft in the country’s border regions inflamed public opinion, threatened to undercut Pakistan’s own counter insurgency efforts and risked destabilising the country. Islamabad’s feeble protests gave grist to the mill of its critics who accused it of a covert deal with Washington on this count.

This posed an imposing challenge for the government: how to square the circle of reconciling conflicting demands from Washington, and its own people. At year end this posed even sharper policy dilemmas given the commitment of the incoming Obama Administration to give greater strategic focus to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While defusing tensions with India remained the top priority as the year ended, the public fallout of the aggravating energy crisis was a sharp reminder to the government that its honeymoon period had long ended. The key question that 2008 posed for the New Year is whether the PPP-led coalition can provide the leadership to steer Pakistan out of its multiple crises, in governance, the economy and security, that have plagued its past and threaten its future. Both the substance and style of governance will need to be corrected if 2009 is to be negotiated effectively.

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK. Email:


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