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Pakistani political class and democracy

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By Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

For the last six months or so, various opposition leaders and parties seem to be targeting the PPP-led federal government in general and Zardari in particular. A section of the media has also joined this campaign

Pakistan’s politics is always at boiling point because the key political players pursue their political discourse in an election campaign mode. The government and the opposition engage in political wrangling on each and every issue and trade charges and counter-charges. Partisan considerations and the attempts to delegitimise the role of the political adversary are the hallmarks of our politics.

President Asif Ali Zardari’s address to the PPP convention on November 25 was a defiant rejoinder to the pressures generated on him and the PPP government by the opposition parties over the last couple of months. The opposition had been successful in creating the impression that Zardari’s days in the presidency were numbered. Many people in the opposition ranks, especially the PML-N, thought that either he would quit under intense political pressure, or the military top brass would force him to resign, or the Supreme Court would knock him out. The opposition never talked of his removal through parliament because they know that they do not have the required votes to impeach him.

For the last six months or so, various opposition leaders and parties seem to be targeting the PPP-led federal government in general and Zardari in particular. A section of the media has also joined this campaign. The debate on the trial of Musharraf, the Kerry-Lugar Law, the NRO and the minus-one formula shows the targeted and personalised nature of the campaign.

The most interesting posture was adopted by the MQM, which is a coalition partner of the PPP. It refused to support the NRO, forcing the government to abandon its effort to seek parliamentary approval for the Ordinance. The MQM maintained that it did not benefit from the NRO. Later, its leaders argued that its activists were not involved in corruption cases. However, the list of the NRO beneficiaries showed that the MQM was the major beneficiary among the political parties. A large number of criminal cases were withdrawn against its senior leaders and other activists. The MQM defended itself by arguing that none of its members were involved in financial corruption and that the criminal cases against its leaders and activists were false, implying that the PPP whose12 names appeared in the NRO beneficiary list was the culprit. This strained MQM-PPP relations, especially when Sindh’s interior minister threatened to reopen these criminal cases against the MQM activists.

Meanwhile, the PML-N and other opposition parties focused only on the alleged corruption by 12 PPP leaders rather than talking about the 8,041 people who got their cases cleared under the NRO. A section of the media joined this campaign.

Zardari’s rejoinder may not silence the opposition. In fact, they now have additional reasons to take him on and build pressure on the PPP-led government. The key issue is not who is corrupt or criminal and whether the PPP and Zardari should stay in power. The political leaders need to do serious soul searching whether their political activities are helping or hindering democracy.

The statements of the political leaders hardly address the most serious challenges of internal security, terrorism and the economy. These issues get a passing reference as a part of criticism of the government. Their statements reflect their narrow partisan efforts to delegitimise each other. Their focus is on the trial of General Musharraf, the Kerry-Lugar Law, the presence of US private security personnel in Pakistan, the NRO, and how to pull down the government. The political leaders need to stop their elitist and personalised point scoring and check what the concerns of the ordinary people are.

Pakistan’s political class is amorphous, diversified and highly polarised. It is interesting to note that with the exception of Islamic parties, this class has become less ideological. The decline of ideology makes it easy to adopt a flexible political approach. However, this makes politics more partisan, personalised and vendetta-driven.

Another factor that adversely affects the institutions of democracy and politics of restraint is the common practise of viewing defiance as a sign of power. The widely appreciated norms in society are tough and rude talking, open challenges to the adversary, especially when it happens to be the ruling party, and calling upon the people to defy the legal authority or disrupt civic life. A powerful person is the one who defies or bypasses the laws and established procedures. Most political parties preach defiance of law and authority to the people when they are in the opposition but expect everybody to respect the law when they acquire power.

There is a tendency to apply the principles of puritanical justice, honesty and merit to the political adversaries, especially the government. However, there is very little, if any, effort to apply these principles to one’s own conduct. There have been complaints of financial corruption, nepotism, violation of merit and the use of the state apparatus for serving personal and partisan interests against all civilian governments since1988.

The experience of Pakistan suggests that sections of the political class have joined hands with the military to dislodge their civilian adversaries. They seek immediate gains and sacrifice long term interests. If today the military and intelligence top brass revive their political ambition, they will not have much problem in co-opting some elements from the political class because of the divided nature of this class and a strong desire on the part of some elements to get rid of the PPP government or at least President Zardari.

The political class talks of democracy and constitutionalism but its overall disposition is heavily laced with non-democratic and highly partisan practices. The leading political groups need to step back from the politics of confrontation and engage in self-analysis to identify the much-needed changes in their political disposition and behaviour for sustaining civilian and democratic institutions.

If the political class is unable to create a credible civilian political alternative to a military-dominated political order, Pakistan’s problems are not going to be resolved no matter who rules — the PPP, the PML-N or any other combination of political forces.

The PML-N needs to soften its political discourse, especially the tone of the second line of leadership who persist in their assault on the PPP. This is despite Nawaz Sharif’s conciliatory tone. They need to focus on issues that directly concern the common people.

The latest MQM-PPP decision to hold back polemical exchanges is a sensible decision that needs to be adopted by other political parties to improve the environment of politics.

The PPP government and especially the Presidency need to recognise that their performance has disappointed many, including the sympathisers of the PPP. These ground realities should be addressed in order to defuse confrontation and seek common ground for bringing some of the opposition on board for addressing the common people’s problems.

The ongoing political tension can be reduced if the government no longer delays constitutional changes, implements the commitment to address the Balochistan problem, removes the impression of increased money-making activities in high government circles, provides some economic relief to the common people or at least explain why it failed to handle the sugar crisis. It seems a tall order keeping in view the government’s problems in policy making and management and the opposition’s impatience for political change to their advantage.

If Pakistan’s political leaders cannot come out of a ‘warlike’ political confrontation, democracy is not likely to endure.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Article reproduced by permission of DT\12\01\story_1-12-2009_pg3_2

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