Few elected governments have so rapidly lost public confidence as the coalition led by President Asif Zardari. A series of opinion polls indicate this. Eighty percent of Pakistanis gave a negative rating to the government on its performance according to a survey by the US-based International Republican Institute. After eleven months in power the government confronts growing public doubts about its ability to lead and govern.
Electorates today tend to be impatient. Governance is more challenging in the age of the 24/7 news cycle because the instant information era creates a constant sense of urgency, heightens expectations and magnifies weaknesses.
But this does not account for why the government has had such a remarkably short honeymoon. For that one has to turn to the gap between expectations generated by the February 2008 elections and actual performance, a gap that has been growing.
A profound sense of foreboding prevails, especially in the face of the looming showdown between President Zardari’s PPP administration and the lawyers’ movement supported by Mian Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. This confrontation has been driven by a string of unkept promises and unresolved issues. The two former political allies seem set on a collision course whose outcome appears uncertain.
The widespread disillusionment with the government has much to do with the quality of leadership and the fact that while an army of ministers has been assembled this does not add up to a credible team. This team is underpowered, lacking expertise and experience. A dithering approach to pressing issues and an ill-disciplined and unwieldy cabinet – the largest in the country’s history – has contributed to the lack of any coherent governance in conditions of unprecedented national disarray.
This has exhibited itself in several damaging ways for the government: a cabinet speaking with different voices and ministers making statements they are not authorised to. This has sent confused and conflicting signals – on the economy, on the post-Mumbai crisis in relations with India, on the power shortages – and exposed the cabinet’s lack of cohesion. When Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani recently admonished ministers in a welcome effort to contain this damage, this raised the question whether such attempts can be lasting as the source of the problem lies elsewhere.
So far the government’s record is more notable for what it has not done rather than what it has. It has not set out a legislative agenda or announced a programme of policy initiatives to stake out a clear direction and convey a sense of calculated purpose. Fitful and sporadic bouts of meetings usually summoned at the Presidency have sought to demonstrate that matters of state are being addressed. But this flurry of activity has yielded little beyond sanctimonious declarations of intent. Repeated rounds have now been witnessed of these much publicised “high-level” parleys that yield no results, action plans that produce no action and targets that have no aim.
This has produced rule without governance and promoted the image of a government whose actions fall spectacularly short of its claims. An inarticulate leadership has also not helped matters. Leadership today is about being able to communicate effectively especially when such a facility can help instil confidence at a time of uncertainty and stress.
The absence of such communication abilities has been compounded by the relative isolation in which the country’s President and PPP Co-Chairman has opted to function, on the ostensible grounds of security. This has had deleterious consequences for a party whose strength lies in its populist credentials. Under its current leader who travels virtually no where within the country, this relationship has frayed, contributing to a growing disconnect between the leadership and the party’s base.
There may be other reasons to explain the enigma of a government that has seen such a swift erosion of public faith. Much of the explanation can be found in four grand illusions that seem to afflict the government.
i) That concentrating power translates into ‘strong government’ and guarantees its longevity.
ii) Confusing wheeling and dealing with consensus building.
iii) Reliance on ‘loyalists’ rather than a capable team will insure government stability.
iv) Relentless public relationing can substitute for governance.
The first illusion is suggested by the past several months which have seen vigorous efforts to concentrate and personalise power in the Presidency and superimpose a kind of unipolarity on an institutional setting in which executive power constitutionally rests with the Prime Minister. From foreign policy to the economy and virtually any issue of significance, all decisions are taken in the Presidency. While the government is structured around a parliamentary system, this effort to operationally empower the Presidency with executive authority has produced friction between the Prime Minister and the President as well as made the government dysfunctional.
Assuming that amassing power in the Presidency will lead to government stability ignores the reality that only government performance and decisive action in the public interest makes for ‘strong government’. Focussing energy on power plays rather than policy weakens, not strengthens, the government. Power without public purpose erodes public confidence and support, hardly the ideal ingredients for political longevity.
The Zardari-led government’s second illusion derives from confusing political wheeling and dealing with consensus building. Political manoeuvring and deal making has now become the hallmark of an approach to political consolidation that consequently de-emphasizes performance, and places politics over principle.
Striking bargains with other political actors and allies (by offering cabinet posts or other state patronage) on the basis of expediency, is fundamentally different from a process of consensus building that is necessarily predicated on issues and principle. While consensus driven understandings are invaluable in enabling governments to address policy challenges by broad consent, expedient bargains are merely tactical with little or no bearing on issues of governance. The government’s continued inability for example to mobilise a political consensus on how to address militancy which poses an existential threat to the country, exemplifies this. Wheeling and dealing may help secure a greater grip on power but offers little help in governance if there is no consensus on how to address key issues: the economy, security, the judges issue, and the 17th amendment, all of which cloud the future in different ways.
The third illusion rests on the President’s apparent belief that reliance on a close and closed circle of trusted (but unelected) lieutenants will strengthen him and his government and represents the best insurance policy. This decision making by and through a cabal of associates, not distinguished by either service to party or known expertise, has already provoked criticism of governing by cronyism. Key decisions are usually conveyed to and not taken by the cabinet, much to the dismay of its members.
This non-process decision making style is also contributing to dysfunctional government, cutting the President off from institutional advice that might have helped avoid mistakes (of ordering a military mobilisation on the basis of a hoax call) and reversal of decisions that have become so familiar. Working through such a narrow circle of loyalists indicates that this is no collegiate system in which advice is received and aborsed in a systematic way but a clique-ish one that has all the risks of unstructured governance.
The fourth illusion is the government’s propensity to think that publicity can substitute for governance. In the past eleven months, a surplus of official rhetoric has done little to obscure the performance deficit. The government has acted as if making all the right noises – especially on countering extremism and on economic adjustment – is by itself sufficient and somehow obviates the need for sustained and credible actions.
What has become a familiar part of the government’s repertoire is to despatch its assorted ministers and spokespersons to television talk shows, as if their very appearance is evidence that it is governing purposefully. But platitudinous rhetoric is no substitute for policy action and has called into question the government’s seriousness in takling urgent issues.
In order to reassure a sceptical and anxious public of its intent and capability, and to revive its sagging momentum the government needs a course correction. It should start by acknowledging that the trinity of urgent and linked challenges of governance, economy and security requires an institutionalised approach in which power has to be put to public purpose and performance has to take precedence over politicking. Without this the country will continue to drift into deeper crisis, lacking direction and the means to meet present and future challenges.
The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.