Most political circles are celebrating the Supreme Court judgement on the NRO without realising that it is yet another example of the civilian-political government finding its political future in jeopardy because of extra-parliamentary developments. If the military is not the key player this time, the superior judiciary has relied on its constitutional powers to deny the moral basis to the civilian government, which could be the beginning of the end of the present political arrangements. Parliament is marginal to determining the future of the government or at least that of President Asif Ali Zardari.
The optimists are happy that the judgement would eliminate corruption in the higher echelons and improve governance. Others want to avail the judgement to pursue their partisan agenda of getting rid of the PPP-led government and demand mid-term elections. Still others have a focused agenda of getting rid of President Zardari which, in their view, would weaken the overall political disposition of the PPP.
If the political leaders and societal elite want this judgement to stimulate efforts to eliminate corruption, nepotism, partisan use of state apparatus and resources and mal-administration, they will have to adopt an issue-oriented, non-discriminatory and comprehensive approach.
The need to focus on these issues in a non-discriminatory manner rather than focusing on some individuals who happen to be in power is more important. The record shows that 8,041 individuals benefited from the NRO but the political leaders and the media are focusing on 12 to 14 people belonging to the PPP. Amongst them the focus is on Zardari. If the PML-N, Jamaat-e-Islami, the PML-Q and some other opposition parties turn it into a single-issue — “get Zardari” campaign — the spirit and purpose of the judgement will be compromised.
The major responsibility for keeping the spirit of the judgement above partisan interests is on the PML-N, a major party in the opposition. If its leaders adopt the anti-government campaign strategies similar to those adopted for the Kerry-Lugar bill and the trial of Pervez Musharraf, tension and conflict will escalate, adversely affecting the prospects of democracy. Some of the key PML-N leaders want to launch another major onslaught against Zardari and the PPP but Nawaz Sharif is expected to moderate his party’s hardliners.
The PML-N being a predominantly Punjab-based political party needs to play its cards carefully and focus on the issue of corruption and all people whose cases are being reopened rather than make it a kind of crusade against one or a few people belonging to the PPP.
A comprehensive and non-discriminatory approach to accountability calls for paying attention to four more issues. First, it is well known that political leaders were involved in false cases. Therefore, it is important that the cases are settled expeditiously by the courts. In the past, these cases were kept pending in order to pressure the political leaders. The expeditious handling of the cases will settle if the case is genuine or false.
Second, accountability has to be non-discriminatory and comprehensive. It should not be limited to the political leaders only. The bureaucracy and the military should also be covered by transparent and judicious accountability. These two institutions often provide some legal cover to their perks and privileges so that they are not accused of corruption. There has to be a judicial scrutiny of their perks and privileges, especially allotment of urban and agricultural land. It is important to look into the involvement of serving military officers and military institutions in business and commercial activities, especially real estate development, which is beyond the purview of parliament.
Third, there is a need for judicial review of bank loan write-offs for influential people. The banking system provides for writing off some bad debts. However, this provision is misused to write off huge loans of influential and connected people or business groups. All such cases should be subjected to judicial checks to know if the write-off was done on merit.
Fourth, in the past influential business people used their political clout to obtain SRO circulars from the CBR (now FBR) to affect customs and related duties for their import business. All this record needs to be scrutinised to know who benefited at the expense of the state.
If the post-judgement political situation degenerates into a conflict between the PPP-led government and the opposition spearheaded by the PML-N, Pakistan can return to a highly dangerous internal confrontation. Such a state of affairs will turn the whole effort to check corruption and misuse of state authority into a head-on collision between the government and the opposition, which will further weaken the political forces and shift the initiative to the military.
If the PML-N and other opposition parties need to show restraint in addressing the post-judgement issues, the government and especially Zardari have to display patience and political maturity. Any overreaction will be counter-productive
The key issue that the presidency and the PPP need to consider is how has Zardari’s political standing declined in one year when he was elected president with an impressive mandate in September 2008? The presidency treated the opposition in an abrasive manner and refused to honour the commitments made before and immediately after getting elected.
The PPP needs to adopt a couple of steps to neutralise the possible opposition onslaught against the backdrop of the judgement. The constitutional and administrative changes based on the Charter of Democracy (CoD) should be carried out at the earliest. The PPP’s decision to delay the constitutional amendments alienated the PML-N, which now looks for any opportunity to even scores with the government. No functional relations can be cultivated with the PML-N without constitutional amendments.
The growing alienation of the people from the government cannot be checked without improving governance aimed at the welfare of the people. The recent decision to reduce extravagant expenditure on the people in key positions in the government is a positive move that needs to be implemented. The people should see that the government has cut back on its expenditure.
The improvement in governance calls for reviewing failures so as to avoid their repetition. The federal minister for power made repeated commitments since he assumed office that load shedding would come to an end on December 31, 2009. The deadline is approaching and there are no signs of power shortages coming to an end. Does the government believe in penalties for its members who make promises without doing necessary homework and then fail to deliver?
Another major government failure is the sugar crisis. After several months of extreme shortages of sugar and official hue and cry for price control, sugar is now available at the price the sugar mill owners had first offered. This shows that the government is helpless in front of powerful economic and political cartels.
The government needs to improve its interaction with the party and society, which is not possible without improving its performance. Similarly, the government and the opposition should not engage in a free-for-all effort to outmanoeuvre each other in the post-judgement period. This will make it extremely difficult for them to overcome political incoherence and strengthen parliament. They will continue to face increased pressures from the state institutions.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Article reproduced by permission of DT