Moderation, tolerance and accommodation can help overcome the present crisis. Both sides need to stand-down from their rigid perspectives. The longer they confront each other in the streets, the harder it will be to find a peaceful and mutually acceptable solution
Democracy is a delicate system of governance that can be sustained only if the political class fully subscribes to and implements its basic norms in letter and spirit. The use of violence in the name of exercising the democratic right to protest shows a lack of understanding of the spirit of democracy.
It was disappointing to watch the PMLN leadership discard the democratic framework and call upon its workers to take to the streets to voice their anger against the Supreme Court judgement that disqualified the Sharif brothers from holding public office. Perhaps the PMLN leaders think that democracy is relevant only to the extent that it facilitates the achievement of their partisan political agenda.
Political agitation and violence in the last week has perturbed even those most optimistic about the future of democracy in Pakistan. The main concern is whether this is the beginning of an unrestrained power struggle between the two major political parties that would unravel the democratic process and shift the political initiative to the military.
What are the implications of street agitation for the capacity of the government to cope with religious extremism and militancy?
Pakistan’s current transition to democracy cannot succeed without active cooperation between the PPP and the PMLN within the constitutional framework. The cordiality manifested by the leaders of these parties in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 general elections engendered the hope that both have learnt from their experiences and would not engage in a free-for-all struggle against each other.
The optimism generated by their cooperation led many to challenge those who projected a doomsday scenario for Pakistan or argued that Pakistan lacked the capacity to function within a democratic framework.
In the 1990s, the PPP and the PMLN engaged in an all out confrontation. During 1988-90, the federal government was led by PPP leader Benazir Bhutto and the Punjab provincial government was led by Nawaz Sharif. These governments declared political war and adopted various measures to destabilise each other. It was a most unfortunate confrontation that weakened civilian institutions and processes. The bitter legacy of these years overshadowed their bilateral interaction until General Pervez Musharraf knocked both leaders out of the political process in October 1999.
Now, in 2009, the PPP and the PMLN have again adopted confrontational posture. The intensity of the PMLN’s anger against the judgement of the Supreme Court has surprised most political observers. Instead of building pressure gradually, the tempo of response was raised to the highest pitch in one go.
Nawaz Sharif’s press conference on February 25 and a public address in Sheikhupura on February 26 reflected his defiant mood and determination to take on the PPP-led federal government in the streets. He minced no words in accusing President Asif Ali Zardari of securing his disqualification from the Supreme Court, which Sharif refused to acknowledge as a legitimate court. He also talked about Zardari’s alleged moneymaking practices while Benazir Bhutto was prime minister. Nawaz Sharif’s second government — 1997-1999 — instituted corruption cases against Zardari. However, no charge was substantiated in court during the next ten years. However, Nawaz Sharif played up these charges in his press conference.
It was an unusual move by Nawaz Sharif to call upon the people to take to the streets to challenge the PPP-led federal government that he held responsible for hatching a conspiracy against him and Shehbaz Sharif. He also advised civil servants not to obey the orders of the government, and endeavoured to isolate Zardari by arguing that he did not blame the PPP for the disqualification. It was Zardari’s doing, he argued.
PMLN activists came out in the streets mainly in the Punjab in a defiant mood and targeted government property, PPP posters and Benazir Bhutto’s memorial in Rawalpindi, where she was assassinated on December 27, 2007. Some of the protest marches that resulted in violence were led by PMLN parliamentarians.
The agitation is limited mainly to PMLN activists and its base in Punjab, especially in the cities that elected PMLN parliamentarians in 2008. It is weak in other provinces where the PMLN has a weak political standing.
However, if the agitation persists at the current level of intensity for another week or so, it is expected to attract ordinary people. It can also spread to other provinces and become nationwide. If agitation does not establish itself in other provinces, it will turn into a confrontation between the PPP and Punjab, which may have negative ramifications for Punjab’s relations with other provinces.
The PMLN can strengthen its position by joining the lawyers’ Long March and sit-in, which will have some political parties and societal groups in its fold. This depends on the tempo of the agitation over the next twelve days.
Another dimension of the PMLN agitation relates to the imposition of Governor’s Rule in Punjab for two months after Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif was disqualified.
The available evidence suggests that neither the PMLN nor the PPP has the required number in the provincial assembly to elect a new chief minister. The imposition of Governor’s Rule gives enough time to both parties to woo the PMLQ for support. If the PPP musters enough members it can form its government; and Governor’s Rule will come to an end quickly. If the PPP cannot muster enough support, however, Governor’s Rule may continue for a longer period. The efforts by the Speaker of the Punjab Assembly (who belongs to the PMLN) to summon the assembly session have no legal basis. However, it is advisable to bring an end to Governor’s Rule and let the Punjab Assembly elect its leader. This will ease tensions in Punjab.
The PPP-led federal government must also share the blame for the current predicament. Its performance in the socio-economic domain has been poor and has alienated the people. It also built pressure on the Punjab government though the governor who periodically threatened to remove the provincial government. This convinced Nawaz Sharif and other PMLN leaders that President Zardari wanted to remove the Punjab government and neutralise the PMLN. Therefore, when the Supreme Court disqualified the Sharif Brothers, Nawaz Sharif was quick to blame President Zardari for the present crisis.
Time is fast running out for the PPP and the PMLN. The PMLN strategy of using its political clout in the Punjab to paralyse the federal government through violent protest will cause irreparable damage to democracy. The strategy of street agitation is expected to accentuate Pakistan’s internal and external security problems and undermine economic recovery. This strategy may create a situation where democracy suffers a major setback and both the PPP and the PMLN lose.
Moderation, tolerance and accommodation can help overcome the present crisis. Both sides need to stand-down from their rigid perspectives. The longer they confront each other in the streets, the harder it will be to find a peaceful and mutually acceptable solution.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst