COMMENT: United they stand! — Rafia Zakaria
Daily Times, October 6, 2007
Barring unforeseen events, General Pervez Musharraf is likely to win a second term (technically) as president today (Oct 6). A deal between the Pakistan People’s Party and General Musharraf has already been sealed, just 48 hours before today’s ballot. This is anti-climax at its most anti-climactic and, given the political firestorms that have raged in Pakistan since March 9, demonstrates yet again that Pakistani politics continues to be defined by a collusion of greed rather than a battle over ideological principles.
In this lacklustre end to the protracted drama of negotiations between the two sides, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and President General Pervez Musharraf are considering putting aside their differences and focusing instead on what unites them. Dominant among these unifying forces is their jointly held desire to manipulate the law to achieve their own ends.
For Musharraf this means (among other things) the continuation of his office for another term as president. Bhutto also requires legal gymnastics to allow her to run for the office of prime minister for a third term and evade the corruption cases that could lead to her incarceration.
Both are thus united by their disregard of the principles of representative government that would have prevented the execution of unilateral legal decrees permitting them to achieve their political goals. Neither seems to think that anything is lost by tinkering with laws that are designed to ensure that political power is not continually recycled amid a limited group of political leaders.
And so, united they may stand.
The limitation on the length and number of political terms of office is incorporated into constitutions of democratic nations so that the political leadership of a community is consistently invigorated with fresh ideas and new leaders that can meet the challenges of governance and truly represent the changing needs of the people. Limiting time in office is thus the bedrock of institutionalised democracy since it differentiates it from other forms of government, such as hereditary monarchy where leaders make claims to power based on their birthright rather than their service to the country.
In a law-abiding political environment, these term limits are respected, new political actors are allowed to emerge on the scene to prevent the calcification of power and the government is not allowed to become the fiefdom of a few powerful people.
This has not happened in Pakistan. While Bhutto may emphasise the distinction that her request to be allowed to serve as prime minister for a third term is based on a previous illegal disruption of her constitutionally elected government, her agreement to the use of ill-begotten power in facilitating her return taints her future claims to legitimacy.
In choosing to be re-elected by assemblies that have reached the end of their term, Musharraf has also shown his utter contempt for the principle of accountability to the people. As democratic theorists point out, representative government is premised on the accountability of elected representatives to the people who are supposed to have the power of extending or eliminating them from political office through general elections. When an outgoing assembly that has reached the end of its term and has not faced the test of accountability before the people in a general election is made the basis of re-election then all principles of accountability are summarily rejected. A slap in the face of the general population, it shows not only Musharraf’s insecurity in facing the opinion of the Pakistani people but also his ultimate disregard for the illegitimacy of rule predicated on such an election.
In this sense, Musharraf’s statements suggesting that he is willing not only to withdraw the corruption cases against Bhutto but also against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif illustrate yet more how co-opting everyone in the dirty game of the illegitimate power-grab essentially eliminates opposition.
If one leader grabs power from the populace, abuses laws for his own benefit and treats the constitution as a mere piece of paper that can be changed to serve one’s own interests, the only basis for absolving himself is to use his own misbegotten power to gain benefits for his enemies.
Forgotten completely is the fact that the cases Musharraf is so benevolently offering to withdraw are cases that were supposedly filed because these past politicians stole not from Musharraf personally, but from the people of Pakistan who pay daily to facilitate the luxurious lifestyles of those in power. If these past rulers were indeed as corrupt as we were told to believe then, should the charges against them simply be dropped as part of political concessions offered by the Musharraf Administration to quell opposition?
If anything, the current constellation of interests demonstrates the inbred nature of Pakistani politics, where the co-optation of all political actors prevents any meaningful changes from one regime to another.
In choosing to share the pie, General Musharraf has thus employed a disingenuous political solution to the challenge that faced him in the wake of the debacle of the foiled sacking of the Chief Justice of Pakistan.
When one cannot legitimise one’s own rule, it makes sense to get others into the tent and allow them to benefit from the gains of one’s own abuses of power. That is the essence of the deal that has reportedly been finally stitched.
By getting into the tent, Bhutto has chosen to accept a slice of the pie. Indeed, if reports are anything to go by, it is likely that in the near future, Sharif may also accept the crumbs offered him.
The only losers in this game of political co-optation, where the same hackneyed actors play the same sordid games, are the people. There’s no slice of the pie for them.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also See: Details about NAtional Reconciliation Ordinance: The News, Online News story