Last Chance ?

ANALYSIS: Last chance saloon — Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
Daily Times, May 11, 2008

A military ruler can distort the constitution with the stroke of pen but political forces find it difficult to undo such distortions and rehabilitate democracy and constitutional supremacy

The people of Pakistan have given a new opportunity to their political leaders for establishing a credible democratic alternative to military-dominated centralised governance. They have reposed confidence in political leaders and parties despite the propaganda of various military regimes that the former are corrupt, incapable of managing state affairs and too divided to ensure political stability and continuity.

Now Pakistan’s political leaders face the challenging task of proving that they have the capacity to set up and manage civilian institutions and processes in a constitutional and democratic framework.

They cannot achieve this objective without focusing on four sets of issues:

First, they need to honour the Constitution in letter and spirit and remove remnants of authoritarian and personalised rule from the 1973 Constitution. Second, they need to strengthen civilian institutions like Parliament, the office of prime minister and political parties. Third, they need to work with civil society to strengthen democracy. Civil society and political leaders should view each other as partners in their struggle for restoring the primacy of civilian institutions and processes. Fourth, they must address the socio-economic problems that have built serious financial and psychological strains on ordinary people. Their support for civilian and democratic institutions and processes cannot be sustained without solving their day-to-day problems.

The federal coalition government led by the Pakistan People’s Party has not been able to develop a broadly shared consensus on the first two issues. The National Assembly has held several meetings but it has not so far done any law-making to assert its primacy and take steps to remove the leftovers of President Musharraf’s second suspension of the Constitution.

The consensus-based restoration of deposed judges does not appear possible by the second deadline because the PPP policy of keeping Musharraf and the post-November 3, 2007 judges “on board” is not fully shared by the PMLN and most leaders of the lawyers’ community. This impasse has caused disquiet in PPP circles because the leadership has not taken them into confidence on their game plan.

Asif Ali Zardari and his close associates want to retain Musharraf under some conditions and restore the ousted judges in a manner that those appointed by the president after November 3 also stay on the bench. The PPP wants to ensure that the restored judges do not challenge Musharraf or the political government. In other words, the PPP is talking of continuity as well as change from the post-November 3 arrangements.

The PMLN wants a complete or near complete break from the above-mentioned period. It wants unconditional restoration of the deposed judges and the exclusion of Musharraf-appointed judges. The N League is keen to remove Musharraf from the presidency. But the PPP leadership does not favour this, at least for the time being.

The PPP leadership thinks that radical judicial and constitutional changes, as proposed by the PMLN and the lawyers, may upset the delicately balanced applecart of the coalition. The president may dissolve the National Assembly and remove the federal government or seek a judicial injection in his favour from the current Supreme Court packed by his appointees or those who took the new oath in November 2007. This could cause an open confrontation between the political forces and the presidency, destabilising the system.

These fears may not be totally misplaced but what is the guarantee that the political system would stabilise if Musharraf were accommodated? Any accommodation between the PPP and Musharraf will antagonise large sections of the political and societal forces, which would challenge such an arrangement.

Currently, the government is better placed to withstand pressures from the presidency because it enjoys the support of political circles and major societal groups. The army is pursuing a non-partisan role that means that it will not necessarily support the president if the latter attempts to destabilise or remove the political government.

However, Musharraf’s options will increase if the government cannot function coherently or the coalition partners get divided for one reason or another. The internal problems of the government came to light from the reported effort of Rehman Malik, non-elected advisor to the prime minister on interior affairs, to get by-elections postponed without the knowledge of the prime minister. Instead of inquiring into the incident, the prime minister hushed up the matter. It is noteworthy that the same adviser is playing a key role in handling the judges issue and is said to be a conduct between the PPP and Musharraf.

The government can lose its current political advantage if it cannot employ its unprecedented popular support to adopt a firm position on constitutional and judicial issues. The continued indecisiveness of the government will adversely affect it credibility.

The lawyers and other groups played a key role in mobilising the people on the judges issue and building support for democracy and free elections. Their efforts strengthened civilian political forces and gave them enough confidence to retrieve the political initiative from the military-bureaucratic elite. It would be unfortunate if their struggle does not result in the rehabilitation of the Constitution, restoration of judges, primacy of civil and political rights, representative governance and accountability.

As long as the government does not evolve a consensus-approach to removing the constitutional distortions caused by Musharraf, it will not have time to address pressing socio-economic issues that directly affect the common people. Pakistan faces serious economic problems at the macro and micro levels, including widening trade and current deficits; rapidly declining rate of the rupee to the dollar; and inter-provincial disparities. Further, the common people are being hit hard by unprecedented hikes in prices of fuel and food, shortages of wheat and power, and unemployment.

Pakistanis will be highly disappointed if the civilian government cannot work towards solving their economic problems and fails to offer them a better and secure future. Their alienation will weaken civilian institutions and processes and makes them vulnerable to manipulation by the traditional wielders of power in Pakistan.

The current opportunity to remove the legacies of authoritarian governance will not be available to political leaders after six months or so. They need to act decisively before their support weakens and societal groups lose confidence in the government.

If the PPP wants to keep every player in the power game on board without recognising the contradictions of such a policy, the PMLN is faced with equally unenviable options. If it fully supports the PPP, it ends up accommodating Musharraf; if it severs its ties with the PPP, the beneficiary is going to be Musharraf as any split in the ruling coalition goes in his favour.

The bottom line is that a military ruler can distort the constitution with the stroke of pen but political forces find it difficult to undo such distortions and rehabilitate democracy and constitutional supremacy. The longer the PPP and the PMLN delay the resolution of these issues, the more difficult it will be for them to create a viable democratic alternative.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst.

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