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A time to change politics? —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

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The political leaders and parties need to give up, at least temporarily, their efforts to delegitimise each other and pull each other down. By doing this they are hastening the collapse of the current democratic order. They need to discard their highly partisan and personalised worldview

Is terrorism the gravest internal threat to Pakistan? The answer is yes and no. Any quick review of Pakistan’s domestic situation shows beyond doubt that the Pakistani state and society are threatened by religious extremism and terrorism. The frequent suicide and car bombings in Peshawar have posed the most serious security challenge, not merely to the city, but also to the whole country.

However, the political disposition of the major political parties like the PML-N, PML-Q and MQM hardly suggests that terrorism is a major threat to Pakistan. If we aggregate the statements of the senior leaders of these parties over the last one month, terrorism appears to be a low priority issue. Their leadership condemns bomb blasts but they hardly talk of the overall threat of terrorism and how to cope with it.

The only parties that talk about terrorism are the Islamic parties and, to some extent, Imran Khan’s PTI. These parties express varying degrees of sympathy for the Taliban and describe them as a friend of Pakistan. They are opposed to the ongoing security operations against the Taliban in the tribal areas and want these to stop. The other major theme in their political discourse is a sharp criticism of the US policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The anti-US perspective makes it easy for Islamic parties to communicate with other sections of the political circles, including the major political parties, because anti-US sentiments are shared in varying degrees by the activists of the major political parties and others.

Islamic parties are vocal in expressing their perspective on terrorism and the US role in the region. Major parties like the PML-N, PML-Q and MQM pursue an ambiguous position on these issues. They express tepid criticism of terrorist incidents and support security operations. However, they do not want their support to countering terrorism as being seen as an endorsement of the federal government’s counter-terrorism policy.

The PPP faces a difficult situation. It has to support all aspects of counter-terrorism policy because the ultimate responsibility to cope with this threat is that of the PPP-led federal government. However, the PPP government’s faltering political support and erratic interaction with its allies diverts its attention from counter-terrorism to political survival.

Despite the acuteness of internal challenges, the political parties are finding it difficult to rise above their partisan interests. Their major interests have tended to focus on building pressure on the PPP with reference to the text of the Kerry-Lugar law, the NRO and how far its non-approval by the parliament would cause political problems for the PPP leadership, especially President Asif Ali Zardari.

It is a positive development that in his recent interview to a private television channel, Nawaz Sharif has delinked himself from the rumours about the possible changes in the political arrangements at the federal level. He has also vowed to contest any attempt to change the government by unconstitutional means.

Nawaz Sharif’s current conciliatory tone is in sharp contrast to his confrontational style in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment to disqualify him and Shahbaz Sharif from contesting elections and the imposition of Governor’s rule in Punjab (February 2009). This implies that the changed style reflects the contextual change rather than a change of heart. Further, Nawaz Sharif’s soft tone needs to filter down to the second line of the PML-N leadership that has been toeing a hawkish approach inside and outside parliament towards the PPP government for the last couple of months.

The political parties have a tendency to revert to their traditional style of engaging in a war of words whenever their partisan interests demand. This trend manifested itself in a stark manner during the recently concluded elections to the legislative assembly in Gilgit-Baltistan. The major political parties, the PML-N, PML-Q, MQM and PPP, accused each other of manipulating the elections, including the use of violence. The political discourse of some of the parties was non-democratic and highly confrontational.

A new series of polemical exchanges is expected to start from November 28 when the NRO lapses. Legal experts diverge on the status of the cases settled under the NRO. The political elements targeting the PPP leaders would seek the revival of the cases and demand the resignation of such leaders from official positions. One is not sure what will be the disposition of the MQM whose leaders and activists have also benefitted from the NRO.

The opposition is hoping that either the Supreme Court will interpret the post-NRO legal position of the settled cases in a manner that the PPP government, especially President Zardari, find it difficult to hold on to power, or the military will pressure Zardari to quit. Alternatively, the political forces will return to their confrontational politics for political changes.

The PPP also needs to review its political strategy in the context of new ground realities marked by the growing popular alienation from the PPP and dissatisfaction about the performance of its government even among the PPP circles. Some of the PPP’s problems are of its own making. These are the outcome of a dismissive attitude of the presidency towards the capacity of the opposition to build pressure and the failure of the presidency to honour its commitment on constitutional and political changes.

Pakistan’s political leadership needs to recognise that the current challenges to internal political and social coherence, order and stability cannot be addressed effectively if they continue with their current political disposition and methods. Whether in power or not, they need to rise above their narrow partisan interests and immediate gains and focus on a long term perspective and shared goals. They can continue trading charges and counter-charges, score points against each other and create partisan political narratives. But if the present political system cannot survive, the political class will be the main loser. Power will either shift to the streets or powerful and integrated state institutions will once again adopt a hegemonic role.

The key issue is not whether the PPP is a better ruler or the PML-N. The survival of the current political order is at stake. The challenge of terrorism and a faltering economy threaten to unravel the political system.

Even if Zardari is out of office and the PPP government collapses, what is the guarantee that the PML-N government will perform better if the present ills of the political system are not rectified? How do we know that one civilian leadership will definitely be replaced by another civilian leadership?

The political leaders and parties need to give up, at least temporarily, their efforts to delegitimise each other and pull each other down. By doing this they are hastening the collapse of the current democratic order. They need to discard their highly partisan and personalised worldview and pool their resources for elimination of the various manifestations of terrorism because these threaten Pakistan rather than the ruling party. The other immediate threat is the troubled economy that cannot currently sustain itself without external support. All political leaders should pay attention to improving the economy and reducing its dependence on foreign doles. Non-recognition of these problems and spending more energy on their partisan interests or non-issues will reduce their options.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst\11\22\story_22-11-2009_pg3_2

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