Dithering democracy

Published : Sep 12, 2008 00:00 IST

Asif Ali Zardari (left) of the PPP and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before a meeting in Islamabad on August 7 when they decided on the impeachment of Musharraf.-REUTERS Asif Ali Zardari (left) of the PPP and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before a meeting in Islamabad on August 7 when they decided on the impeachment of Musharraf.

Asif Ali Zardari (left) of the PPP and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before a meeting in Islamabad on August 7 when they decided on the impeachment of Musharraf.-REUTERS Asif Ali Zardari (left) of the PPP and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before a meeting in Islamabad on August 7 when they decided on the impeachment of Musharraf.

Democracy-loving Pakistanis worst fears about the elected leaders and military-rule enthusiasts predictions of their failure seem to be coming true.

IT is said that if Pakistans democratic politicians have one unfailing ability, it is to make military dictators look good.

With Pervez Musharraf gone, it was clear that the ruling coalition would have to start delivering on governance in order to demonstrate that democracy works. For this, it was seen as particularly important for the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the two big parties in the four-party alliance, to hang together at least for some time in order to develop a national consensus on important issues such as tackling the threat of the Taliban and repairing the economy. Equally, it was feared that with the exit of Musharraf, the enemy who brought the two historical archrivals together, there would be no other glue to keep them together.

Within no time of Musharrafs resignation, democracy-loving Pakistanis worst fears about the elected leaders and military-rule enthusiasts smug I told you so predictions seemed to be coming true. On Day 1 after the resignation, the PPP and the PML(N) once again fought over the issue that has hobbled their marriage from the start the reinstatement of the Judges whom President Musharraf sacked when he imposed the emergency in November 2007.

When the ruling coalition announced its decision to impeach Musharraf on August 7, PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari read out from the joint communique that the Judges would be restored immediately after the impeachment. Musharraf was gone within 10 days of the announcement, stepping down by himself rather than face the impeachment. Once that happened, the PML(N) and the lawyers who have been fighting for unconditional reinstatement of the Judges expected it to happen immediately, as promised.

But Zardari, who was plainly reluctant to take this step from the start and had even turned his back on the very public Murree Declaration on this issue, had other ideas. As before, he continued to link the Judges restoration to a package of judicial reforms to be included in a larger package of constitutional changes.

It all appeared to be boiling down to Zardaris aversion, declared publicly some months ago, to the deposed Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhary. While in office last year, Chaudhary had questioned the validity of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which was promulgated on October 5, 2007, following a deal between Musharraf and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto. It allowed Benazir to return to Pakistan by erasing all corruption charges against her and Zardari among others. In exchange, the PPP abstained in Parliament during the controversial presidential election on October 6, 2007, and in effect facilitated Musharrafs re-election. Appeals against the validity of the NRO are pending before the Supreme Court. The judicial reforms will cut back Chaudharys tenure, ensuring that he leaves by the end of next year instead of 2013.

Alternatives included a minus one formula reinstatement of the Judges minus Chaudhary and a minus two formula Chaudhary gets nixed and so does Abdul Hameed Dogar, the present Chief Justice handpicked by Musharraf to lead the Supreme Court after he sacked all those he thought were opposed to him.

The PPP was also said to be bargaining with the PML(N) for indemnity to Musharraf in return for the restoration of the Judges. Another possibility is that the PPP wanted to keep the reinstatement of the Judges as a bargaining chip to get its own appointee elected as President. The PPP played its first card in this game by suggesting Zardaris name. It surprised no one that the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which was an articulate supporter of Musharraf and his policies but dumped him for sharing power with the PPP in Sindh province, also put forward Zardari as the "best candidate for the Aiwan-e-Sadr.

But the PML(N) made it known that Musharrafs successor must come from a smaller province, preferably Balochistan, as it would give the aggrieved province a stake in the Pakistani federation, from which separatist Baloch nationalists want to break away.

If Pakistanis thought that the two parties would get on with governing the country after having got rid of Musharraf, they were mistaken. As PML(N) leader Nawaz Sharif threatened to storm out of the coalition, and the lawyers warned they would launch another agitation for the unconditional reinstatement of the Judges, it looked as if governance would take the back seat yet again.

Two big suicide attacks within four days of Musharrafs exit underlined what urgently awaits the attention of the ruling coalition the challenge posed by the Taliban not just in some remote tribal corners of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) but increasingly inwards. One suicide attack in Dera Ismail Khan in the NWFP targeting the emergency room of the district hospital killed 35 people. The other attack targeted a symbol of the Pakistan military the Pakistan Ordnance Factories at Wah, 45 kilometres from Islamabad, near Taxila. At least 65 people were killed in the attack, all civilian employees of the countrys largest munitions factory.

Both attacks were claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban, an umbrella group of Pakistani Taliban militants. Their leader is Beithullah Mehsud, a Taliban commander based in South Waziristan, and he would like the government to negotiate peace with him on his terms. Large swathes of the north-west remain ungovernable, while more is slipping into the hands of the Taliban every day. In some parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), notably Kurram, Taliban militants with Al Qaeda backing are engaged in protracted battles for supremacy with local Shia tribes.

The PPP-led government is trying to find the right policy to deal with the problem, from South Waziristan to Bajaur and from Peshawar to Swat, even as it tries to balance the rampant hatred, in Pakistan and among its own allies, for the United States-led war on terror with the need to stave off the internal challenge from the Taliban. The increasing desperation was evident in Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillanis plea in the National Assembly to all members: Debate this issue for as long as you like but find a way for the government to deal with it.

The other urgent issue before the government is the economy, which, as Musharraf pointed out in his farewell speech, is on the downslide. The Karachi stock exchange yo-yoed madly, gaining about 400 points as Musharraf announced his resignation, then fell below the 10,000-mark as the coalition squabbled over the Judges.

Inflation is at an all-time high and the rising prices of food items, coupled with the constant increases in fuel prices and the shortage of power, have sharpened public frustration. Musharraf, who had become a symbol of everything that was going wrong with the country, gradually became associated with all these problems, too, even though he was not directly responsible for them. Now ordinary Pakistanis are waiting for the democratic government to deliver on these fronts.

On its performance may well depend the ability of democracy to take root in Pakistan. Bets are already out that within six months, this government is going to make Musharraf look good. This is a country where no one takes for granted that a bad democratic government will be replaced by a different, duly elected government. Its always a 50-50 chance that it could be the Army.

As most analysts have noted, Musharrafs departure has not altered the countrys problematic civil-military relations one bit. If Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has shown an inclination to remain in the barracks, it is because the military wants to rebuild the institutions image, which suffered severe setbacks owing to its identification with Musharraf, especially in 2007. Moreover, with the country facing a complicated problem on its north-western frontier and a crippled economy, the Army knows its interests are best served by steering clear of the mess.

Pro-democracy Pakistanis can only hope the day will never come when another general comes up on their television screens with those three by-now-familiar words: Merey aziz humwatanon (my dearest countrymen).

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