Pakistan’s political history shows that while its political leaders undergo hardships to replace military rule with democracy, they falter in sustaining the democratic process by fighting among themselves. Are the current political rumblings in Pakistan and efforts for political realignments indicating a new drift towards uncertainty, if not chaos?
The PPP-led coalition government assumed power at the federal level in March 2008 with a lot of goodwill and the hope that Pakistan would now move towards a participatory political system and that the primacy of the parliament would be rehabilitated within the framework of the 1973 Constitution. It was also expected that the PPP-led government would remove the political and constitutional distortions introduced by the Musharraf government and restore the parliamentary system in letter and spirit.
Ten months down the road, the PPP is entrenched in power, holding three key federal positions — president, prime minister, and speaker of the national assembly — and it is sharing power in all provinces. However, the PPP has shied away from restoring the 1973 Constitution as agreed by the political parties, including the PPP, in the pre-election period. While the PPP continues to talk about restoring the parliamentary character of the constitution, it has so far not taken any action to that end. This has created a strong impression that the PPP is no longer interested in reducing the power of the presidency and enhancing the status of the prime minister and parliament because it also controls the presidency.
President Asif Zardari’s credibility has suffered because of his refusal to honour the commitment the PPP made under the leadership of Benazir Bhutto to the PMLN and others to make changes in the constitution and fully restore the sacked judges. The PPP under Zardari has adopted the policy of ‘pick-and-choose’ for implementing the commitments made earlier by arrogating to itself the right to decide how and when these commitments are to be implemented. The main thrust of the PPP leadership is to keep the initiative with itself rather than work towards consensus building. It is prepared to welcome other political parties on board but on its terms.
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 was an irreparable loss to the PPP because no Pakistani leader enjoyed such an all-Pakistan political stature and respect at the international level. Zardari was a natural choice given the political situation in the immediate aftermath of Bhutto’s sad demise. He successfully steered the party out of a major crisis by defusing the post-assassination violence in Sindh and the extreme anger among PPP workers elsewhere.
Zardari has replaced the PPP’s internal political equations inherited from Benazir Bhutto with a new political configuration that assigns greater importance to his loyalists. It was not surprising that some of the close associates of Benazir Bhutto found themselves on the sidelines. In his first press conference, Zardari talked of Makhdoom Amin Fahim as the possible PPP candidate for premiership, but when the time came for the final decision, Zardari kept the issue pending for some weeks before deciding in favour of Yousaf Raza Gilani.
However, the Shaukat Aziz-Pervez Musharraf model of governance could not be replicated in the post-election 2008 period because of the changed political context. The removal of NSA Mahmud Durrani showed that even the amiable Gilani could assert his legal authority if the presidency stayed insensitive to the strong desire of parliament to assert its primacy.
Any attempt by the presidency to assert itself vis-à-vis the prime minister and the parliament, including the use of presidential power to dissolve the National Assembly, will destabilise the political process. The parliament and the political parties would resist such a move. Any unilateral move by the presidency to stage a revolt against the prime minister within the PPP may not succeed either.
The hesitancy on the part of the PPP to amend the constitution has shifted the initiative to other political parties. The MQM and the PMLN have prepared two draft amendments. Now, the government would have no choice but to take up the issue and work towards creating a consensus draft of the amendment. The credit for this amendment will go to the parties that forced the PPP to take up the matter. In case the PPP opposes the amendment, it will face sharp criticism for going back on the commitment to introduce mutually agreed amendments in the constitution.
The proposed amendment would withdraw some of the special powers of the president, thereby reducing the role of the president in governance and strengthening the position of the prime minister and parliament.
The most alarming development is the growing confrontation between the PPP and the PMLN. The two sides are quickly drifting apart on a number of issues that include the restoration of the superior judiciary as it existed on November 2, 2007, amendments in the constitution to formalise the primacy of parliament and the Punjab Governor’s efforts to build pressure on the PMLN provincial government in the province.
Though top PMLN and PPP leaders have shown restraint in mutual criticism, their second tier leaders have regularly traded charges and counter-charges in the Punjab. Both parties have senior leaders who make no secret of their contempt for each other. If current trends continue, there will soon be a showdown between the Punjab Governor and the PMLN government in the province. This will have a most devastating impact on political stability and democratic continuity. If the PMLN government is knocked out in the Punjab, it will not let the PPP rule peacefully at the federal level.
What goes in favour of the PMLN and other opposition political parties is the disappointing governance on the part of the government and its failure to provide any economic relief to the people. They have become alienated from the government mainly because of inflation, shortages of essential commodities and power outages that have reduced industrial output and retrenched jobs. The opposition can easily articulate these grievances to build pressure on the government.
These trends have compromised, and will continue to compromise, the government’s capacity to address acute economic problems, deal with Indian pressure against the backdrop of the Mumbai terrorist attack, and ensure internal security and stability in the face of the threats by religious extremists and militant elements.
This is no time for bickering among the political forces. President Zardari needs to take the initiative to defuse the growing political polarisation in the domestic context. This cannot be possible without Zardari stepping back into his constitutional role and allowing the prime minister and parliament to assume their legitimate roles.
Zardari can be a successful president by functioning like a guardian-statesman, representing the nation as a whole rather than a partisan leader who wants to manipulate politics to sustain his commanding role. There are political rumblings within the PPP. Opposition parties and several societal groups are exploring the option of challenging the efforts of the presidency to sustain the role it acquired during the Musharraf days. If the political situation cannot be calmed down, Zardari is likely to be isolated, which will have negative consequences for the PPP’s political future.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Reproduced by permission of DT