DAWN - Editorial; January 4, 2006

January 04, 2006


Senate re-shuffle

FOR the second time in recent history, a draw has been held to decide who among the senators will complete their six-year term and who will retire after three years. In a federation, the lower house represents the people, while the upper house, the Senate in Pakistan’s case, represents the constituent units. It is a body that is supposed to be permanent, unlike the National Assembly, which is dissolved on the completion of its five-year term or earlier on the advice of the prime minister. However, military interventions in Pakistan have made no difference between the two houses. The revival of the Senate following the general election of 2002 has created the kind of situation that saw a draw being held in Islamabad on Monday to retire half of the 98 members (the case of other two having been already decided.)

The results of the draw are interesting, for luck has favoured the ruling coalition, which has been able to retain its majority in the upper house. It lost 24 of its 56 members, while 22 out of the opposition’s 44 senators will retire on March 11. The PML and its allies have thus retained 27 seats, as against the opposition’s 19. Among the opposition components, the PPP has suffered most, losing seven out of its 11 seats, while the MMA strength has gone down from 22 to 13. Seven ministers have fallen victim to the draw, while Maulana Samiul Haq, head of his own faction of the JUI, has retained his seat. However, by an extraordinary coincidence, both the leader of the house, Wasim Sajjad, and the leader of the opposition, Mian Raza Rabbani of PPP, have lost their memberships. Elections are now scheduled for March for the seats that have fallen vacant, and let us hope that this Senate will not suffer the fate of the previous ones.

The role of the upper house varies from country to country. In Britain, the House of Lords — its powers having been clipped — is little more than a debating forum. It can delay the passage of a bill and recommend amendments, but cannot reject a bill passed by the House of Commons. But the quality of its members and the level of debates serve to clarify national issues from which the Commons and the media benefit. In the US, the senate is a powerful body, which not only shares financial control with the House of Representatives but also has a say in foreign affairs. It approves or rejects the president’s nominees for cabinet and ambassadorial posts, and it has the power to accept, reject or modify foreign aid bills. This enables the senate to serve as a check on the president’s powers and be an equal partner with the lower house in all legislation. One of its most important functions is to hold public hearings where its standing committees summon state officials to justify government policies. Woodrow Wilson, one of America’s great presidents known for his Fourteen Points, died broken-hearted because the senate did not go along with him on the League of Nations issue. Our Senate can play a meaningful role in legislation and policy matters only if the political process remains uninterrupted. Repeated military interventions have contributed to a lack of maturity and sophistication in such political institutions as we have.

Misuse of public places

THE Hyderabad nazim has mercifully agreed to hand over the city’s cricket stadium to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) after the ground became the centre of a controversy. A federal minister recently hosted his son’s valima inside the stadium in a lavish ceremony attended by thousands of guests. For the record, the groom also happens to be the nazim of a neighbouring district. Permission to hold the ceremony inside the stadium could not have been given without the nazim’s approval. Once details of the stadium’s misuse and the consequent damage to its field made it to the press, a public outcry ensued, especially since Hyderabad has hosted international cricket events there over the years. In the meantime, the Supreme Court has asked the federal minister to explain why the function was held, since the serving of food constitutes a violation of a long-standing government ban. In this context, the decision by the nazim to hand over the stadium to the PCB is belated since the damage has already been done.

Such misuse of public places meant for the recreation and entertainment of citizens has been happening all over the country with impunity. Rules and regulations are bent or simply ignored by officials whose job it is to ensure that no damage comes to such places through any unauthorized use and that they are used for the public benefit alone. Beside the Hyderabad case, many instances of misuse and disfigurement of historical or heritage buildings and structures have been taking place elsewhere. One place where this happens frequently is Lahore where weddings, fashion shows and concerts are held at Mughal-era buildings. In the process, some of these precious buildings and monuments have suffered physical damage and defacement — all this with the knowledge and connivance of relevant officials. Elected leaders should at least think twice before violating the rules to favour an individual in such matters because what happened in Hyderabad was a serious violation of the public trust. Action also needs to be taken in all such cases.

Haneef Ramay

HANEEF Ramay will primarily be remembered as a decent politician in search of a political role for himself. He seemed to gravitate naturally towards the People’s Party in the stirring ‘70s, but he was a little too earnest in his socialist beliefs and soon fell out with Mr Z.A. Bhutto. Thereafter came experimentation with different groups and eventual disillusionment, with Mr Ramay going back to his books and his easel. He remained politically confused, but he was that rare commodity in our milieu — a politician of personal integrity. He was also among those with non-feudal, middle class backgrounds who had come to the forefront in the 1970 elections and were driven by a certain commitment to serve the people. They were sensible people who believed in certain values and were literate and civilized. It was not mere power that drove them, and since they were from the people, they could connect with them. That phase didn’t last long, and the period since has seen nothing but rising mediocrity in politics (as well as in most professions). The level of discourse is abysmally low, with polemics substituting for debate.

The deterioration is the inevitable result of the fracturing of the political process. Now even the middle-class types are brought in from the top by our military managers and have little understanding of the problems of ordinary citizens, whose day-to-day concerns get no hearing in the assemblies. Political parties have shrunk, losing touch with their constituents and becoming thoroughly undemocratic in their working, depending on the whims and directives of their leaders. The trade union movement, which used to produce populist politicians, has all but collapsed. The situation fills one with despair, and it is because of this that personalities like Mr Ramay gain in stature, even though they may not have made any enduring political contribution.

A glimmer of hope in the distance

EVERY hour of the day, the sun sets in some part of the world. But at the very same time, it rises somewhere else. This commonplace fact not only serves as a reminder that the earth is not flat, it is also a useful allegory for the simple truth that hope springs eternal. And that counts for a great deal even in places where false dawns are a familiar phenomenon.

Last month’s elections in occupied Iraq were followed within days by presidential polls in a distant part of the globe. Bolivia does not mean a great deal to most people outside the Americas. Accurately or otherwise, it is a name many of us would vaguely associate with a string of military dictatorships — but that isn’t much of a distinguishing feature given that until a couple of decades ago military rule was the favoured form of governance in much of Latin America. Favoured by the US, that is, as well as by sections of the local business and military hierarchies, rather than by the people. Particularly the indigenous people, who invariably seemed to matter even less than the rest of their compatriots.

Bolivia has another resonance too for some outsiders: they remember it as the country where nearly 40 years ago Ernesto Che Guevara sacrificed his life for a better world. About a decade before that, before they embarked on a seemingly quixotic adventure that turned into the Cuban Revolution, he had dedicated a poem to Fidel Castro that began: “Let us go/ Fiery prophet of the dawn/ Down winding secret paths/ To free the verdant isle you love.” After Che’s martyrdom in Bolivia, an Anglo-American pair of folksingers described him as “meeting death with morning in his eyes”.

So far, the time-honoured metaphor for a radical new beginning has not lost its relevance. At least not in Bolivia, where the front-runner in the December 18 election wasn’t shy of wearing Che T-shirts on the campaign trail, telling one interviewer: “When it comes to Che Guevara, our only difference is the armed struggle — I don’t accept armed struggle. Maybe it was the way in the 1950s and ‘60s, but we want a democratic revolution.”

The popular support for Evo Morales, who was a child of eight when Guevara was killed, appeared to offer some vindication for the revolution-that-never-was. Opinion polls suggested that Che’s peaceful heir would win about 31 per cent or so of the popular vote, squeezing ahead of his conservative rivals, whereupon it would be up to the Bolivian parliament to formally endorse him as president.

It never came to that. Morales confounded predictions by winning more than 50 per cent of the vote, beating his closest rival by more than 20 per cent. No presidential candidate in Bolivia has achieved a comparable electoral feat in the past 30 years.

What Morales had going for him apart from his radical platform was his Aymara heritage: when he is sworn in on January 22, he will become the first fully indigenous head of state in Latin America. It proved to be an irresistible combination in the continent’s poorest country where the indigenous majority has been brutally sidelined for centuries, and where neo-liberal economic policies have exacerbated disparities of wealth.

The president-elect has plans to counter both these tendencies but, beyond the sloganeering, he appears to appreciate the fact that it’s much easier to come up with vote-winning populist rhetoric than it is to implement groundbreaking changes, because “20 years of neo-liberal laws cannot be erased in one swipe”. On the other hand, there is some comfort to be had from the fact that his triumph is part of a Latin American trend.

Landlocked Bolivia’s largest neighbours are in the hands of democratically elected left-of-centre governments. Although Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva tend to err on the side of caution, and the latter in particular has been accused of betraying the working class that elevated him to power in the first place, Chile appears likely this month to elect its most socialistic president since Salvador Allende.

Michelle Bachelet — who came first in a ballot last month but faces a run-off on January 15 after falling short of the requisite 50 per cent — is a single mother who has charmed a conservative, male-dominated and largely Roman Catholic society, perhaps not least because her father died in one of Augusto Pinochet’s prisons, and she and her mother spent weeks in the vicious general’s detention and torture centres.

And that’s not all. There’s Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay. And, of course, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, himself part indigenous, who may turn out to be the best role model for Morales, although both sides will be reluctant to admit it. The irrepressible Chavez has not endeared himself to the United States, partly because of his frequent denunciations of imperialism, but also because the political and economic changes he has introduced in Venezuelan society mean he keeps winning elections.

And even that is not all. There are further elections due across Latin America this year, and reasonable chances of the anti-neo-liberal trend being reinforced — not least in Nicaragua, where a Sandinista comeback is deemed possible. That would be a significant blow to the US, which strove hard throughout the 1980s to overthrow the Sandinistas through terrorism. And should Mexico’s Vicente Fox be succeeded by a left-of-centre president, that would be an even bigger blow.

Morales won his political spurs by fighting for the rights of coca farmers, which would have sufficed to render him suspicious in the eyes of the US even if he wasn’t inclined to talk about nationalizing Bolivia’s natural resources or to more or less echo Chavez in condemning imperialist acts and intentions.

The leftwards drift across Latin America is in large part a consequence of three decades of neo-liberal economics. The stark effects of these policies in Bolivia are largely responsible for recent bouts of instability: in parts of the country, for instance, direct action was required to prevent the privatization of water. However, when Morales talks about the nationalization of gas or mineral reserves, he does not mean the confiscation of assets or the expulsion of foreign capital but, rather, a fairer share of the profits.

And when Morales defends the right of Bolivian peasants and farmers to cultivate coca, the purpose is not the manufacture of cocaine. Describing it as “not a drug” but “a healthy herb”, he says: “What many people don’t understand is that the coca leaf is an important part of our culture. Zero cocaine cannot mean that zero people work with the coca leaf.” He feels that if the US has a drug problem, it should tackle it in its own land, instead of aggressively insisting on coca-eradication drives.

Even the World Bank concedes that such drives have contributed to greater poverty in Bolivia. But legalizing coca would mean a suspension of US aid. Nor is there any serious prospect of the debt relief Morales intends to demand from US-controlled international financial institutions. Land reforms and other measures designed to ease the burden of indigenous Bolivians, who constitute more than 60 per cent of the population, are also unlikely to go down well with the IMF as well as the comprador bourgeoisie. And foreign investors may be less likely to renegotiate deals with the Bolivian government than they were with oil-rich Venezuela.

But the path of compromise is far from hazard-free: it would mean little or no change in the living conditions of most Bolivians, and substantial sections of those who voted for Morales are simply not prepared to tolerate that sort of inaction. The president-elect is enthusiastic about plans for a constituent assembly, to be elected in July, whose efforts would then be put to a referendum. This strategy could at least give Morales room for manoeuvre.

A typical instance of the “liberal” American approach to “problems” such as Morales could be found in a recent article by Pamela Constable in The Washington Post, which was peppered with suggestions that it would be sensible for the new president to be “pragmatic” and “practical” — buzz words that mean he should quietly continue to kowtow to the powers-that-be — instead of “provocative”. Condoleezza Rice was more direct but no less condescending: “We will look to the behaviour of the Bolivian government to determine the course of US-Bolivian relations.” How kind of you, headmistress. What next? Disciplinary action?

Morales, to has credit, has not been intimidated so far. Addressing a conference titled In Defence of Humanity a few days after his victory, he concluded his speech with words that Che would have been proud of: “We have no other choice, companeros and companeras — if we want to defend humanity we must change systems, and this means overthrowing US imperialism.”

A week later he led a delegation of his Movement Towards Socialism to Havana for talks with Fidel Castro and other Cuban officials. The symbolism suggests Morales is a likely contender for the Chavez league rather than a Lula clone — and, quite possibly, just what Bolivia needs at this fascinating juncture in the development of Latin America.

Email: mahirali1@gmail.com