DAWN - Opinion; November 25, 2007

Published November 25, 2007

Pessimism over cabinets

By Kunwar Idris

PAKISTAN’S political atmosphere is charged with mistrust that grows with every attempt made to relieve it. The composition of the caretaker cabinets, the federal in particular, and en masse dismissal of the petitions challenging the validity of President Musharraf’s election by the reconstituted Supreme Court seemingly have driven the last proverbial nail in the coffin of national trust.

The lawyers do not expect justice from the highest court of the land; the political parties taking the Election Commission to be just an extension of the government refuse to attend its meetings; and the politicians suspect each other of being in cahoots with the regime or acting at the behest of one or the other external power. The people could not be blamed for losing trust in all of them – the president, the government, the court and the commission, the political parties and, sadly, in the army too for that is where the president’s base of power has remained all along instead of the parliament and civil administration.

The issues causing mistrust are becoming intractable with every passing day. Heading the list is the universal demand for an end to emergency. A compromise solution could be found by confining it to the areas where the war on terror is being fought. Fundamental rights and jurisdiction of the courts could be restored elsewhere.

The Constitution enables the President to proclaim emergency when “the security of Pakistan, or any part thereof is threatened by war or external aggression or by internal disturbance beyond the power of the provincial government to control”. Such a situation indeed exists but only in some tribal areas and parts of the NWFP like Swat and Shangla districts. Why the whole country should be subjected to the rigours of emergency is incomprehensible.

Why, for example, Imran Khan who is a darling of the cricketing world and had given Pakistan its only world-class cancer hospital should have been sent to a far off prison, and denied access to courts too, only because his visit to the university campus at Lahore had caused a rumpus? It carried Pakistan’s infamy to the sporting and glamour circles of the world who would have ordinarily remained unawares or unconcerned about our travails and tyranny. A short stint in jail has got Imran a permanent place in politics which through his own exertions and philanthropy he had failed to get. He should thank the government for it.

External pressures and withering support in his own party ranks (even Chaudhry Shujaat now says he does not need the crutch of emergency to return to power through a fair ballot) may soon persuade Musharraf to withdraw, or substantially modify, the proclamation of emergency. But the crisis would deepen if he does not and the elements of his last coalition joined by Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI decide to participate in the polls even under the Provisional Constitution Order (PCO). Hardly any time is left for the government and heads of the main political parties in the opposition to agree to avert such a catastrophe.

Harder to find would be a solution to the demand of lawyers, now backed by almost every political party, for the restoration of the Supreme Court as it was before the PCO. This could possibly happen only if Musharraf were to be made to quit in the face of mass agitation. That is unlikely to happen but the polls would surely be put in jeopardy. It would be prudent to avoid confrontation on that count. In course of time even those politicians who have welcomed the judicial purge or have acquiesced in it surely would realise the enormous damage done to the institution of justice and agree to undo it through the new parliament.

An independent and secure judiciary, undoubtedly, is indispensable for a society which is committed to a culture of lawfulness and human rights. But it is not of crucial importance in the immediate context of elections that lie just 43 days ahead. Crucial to free and fair polls would be: one, the neutrality of the officials who have physically to conduct and supervise the ballot; two, the legal and administrative framework that the Election Commission lays down for electioneering; and three, the directions that emanate from the caretaker governments at the centre and in the provinces to the field agencies, police in particular.

On all three counts one cannot help but strike a note of deep pessimism. The nazims, who now control the officials who would be manning the polling stations, have firm and declared political affiliations. With their jobs and careers at stake few among the officials would be able to stand up to the pressure of the nazim just as hardly any nazim would be able to resist the directions he gets from his party bosses.

The laws, tradition and attitude of successive incumbents have combined to deprive Pakistan’s chief election commissioner of the clout and authority his office enjoys in other countries. In India, the Chief Election Commissioner(CEC) always a civil servant and not a judge, regulates even the use of official transport by the prime minister during the election campaign and his visits to the constituencies. Here, no CEC has ever been seen questioning the activities even of the ministers. The polling date and schedule in India is laid down by the CEC and not by the government as here.

The note of deepest pessimism however must be reserved for the caretaker cabinets. The number of ministers is too large and keeps growing. Barring a few, all of them are nominees of the political parties or friends and favourites of the president. If the intention were to prevent foul play in polls five administrators of proven integrity would have been enough.

No new policies can be made and enforced in two months. The caretaker prime minister has already declared that no deviation is to be made even from the policies handed down by Musharraf. Why have a hundred ministers when most among them do not have even a pretence to impartiality. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the ministers have come in droves not to prevent rigging but to ensure that it goes their way.

In a situation where the political nazims continue to head the local administration, the election commission is unable to act independent of the government and the cabinets are appointed by a president who himself stands at the centre of the electoral controversy, fairness in the electoral process can be left only to transparent ballot boxes and foreign observers. That’s gimmickry.

The serious business in progress is the shuffling of the SHOs and new appointments of teachers, clerks, and excise and tax inspectors in thousands. Now that the election commission seems to be waking up to its role, it should intervene to stop all transfers and new appointments, cancel those already made and place the district establishments under the charge of career civil servants for the duration of the elections.

The broken wings of desire

By Adil Zareef

WHAT a distressing sight. Police going berserk as it unleashes savagery on school children just because they happen to stand a non-violent, peaceful vigil in Islamabad against the imposition of emergency. This has now come to haunt, brutalise, dehumanise the very backbone of any civilised society.

Most affected is the middle class — the enlightened moderates of Pakistani society, the intelligentsia comprising writers, journalists, lawyers, artistes, poets, thinkers, human right activists and the movers and shakers of this otherwise hopeless nation.

Nevertheless, petitions pour in from across the world in support of the embattled judiciary and there seems to be a seismic change in the previously enamoured West against the regime. “I can think of no starker demonstration of commitment to the law than the extraordinary courage, fortitude and bravery of the lawyers we see in Pakistan,” says Andrew Holroyd, President, United Kingdom Law Society.

Our people have after so many years of listlessness and apathy decided to think, speak and decide for their future in unison. This includes the budding trendy upscale youths who are normally too docile to venture out — other than for designer wear and chic food outlets. But as they assert themselves, they are thrown to the wolves. The establishment that has long resisted change and maintained a debilitating status quo suddenly jumps the gun.

Once again the powerless people of Pakistan are at the mercy of an unthinking SHO, uncouth policemen in plainclothes and riotous hooligans, given a free hand to embarrass and insult the most respectable and civilised amongst us.

This was exactly what happened when the Punjab government humiliated Imran Khan, our shining star on the otherwise dark horizon of Pakistani politics.

A man, who brought laurels for his country with his cricketing feats, gave hope to the otherwise mortally sick patients at Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital, who inspired hope in the hearts of millions with his selfless struggle to make a difference in a world dictated by the neo-liberal agenda from the ivory towers of Bretton Woods and Washington Consensus.

In another country, another world, this man would have been rewarded with the highest reward or given a status of an undisputed icon but in this less than pure land of ours; he is mauled, abused and shoved by IJI activists, and thrown into a dark dungeon. Does this sound like a sordid tale from the Middle Ages? This happens to be Pakistan in the 21st century.

Pakistani universities have been coerced by a fascist organisation run by a religious party with a history of supporting successive despotic governments; forcing an undefined ‘ideology’ of Pakistan and stamping out dissent in favour of a totalitarian order.

Having spent its force during General Zia’s dictatorial regime and in decimation of Afghanistan and the Pukhtoon belt (Waziristan and Swat) in the name of Islam, the religious right is conspiring to become, once again, the handmaiden of the establishment.

Fortunately, the tide seems to be shifting as crowds of Punjab students stand up to religious hooliganism. On the western front, the head of JUI stands exposed with his double talk, and expelling the two unreliable partners (JUI and JI) from the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) platform would be a step in the right direction.

As this world races towards the digital age of innovative ideas and opportunities, we remain closeted from the outside world and descend into a police state. An independent judiciary and a vocal media are essential ingredients of any democracy worth its name. Pakistan talks about democracy as these two pillars are being struck down.

These are no ordinary times, this is no ordinary struggle. It does not matter who wins the next elections or who makes it to the golden chariot of the pharaoh, to rule the bloodstained children of the lesser gods. Had we been in the same space and time as ancient Egypt, perhaps God would have bestowed the toiling, bruised masses some solace, some hope, some relief. Nothing comes to our rescue; no one listens to our anguished sighs today.

In the endgame, no civil society, judiciary, independent media, political parties or political constituencies and mandates, came into play when a multinational is rewarded for swindling a profitable steel mill. And the same silence prevails when a local commodity is shipped out at throw away prices to import an inflated commodity, such as flour recently, to serve the imperial masters atop our heads.

We will continue to starve and die to wage wars as directed by our masters while we get our monthly rations and hefty doses of entertainment to keep our minds distracted and also an occasional boot lest we stray. So march on– into oblivion.

Tailpiece: While administering the oath to the newly inducted fleet of interim ministers, the exceptionally grim Chief of Army Staff spoke of “the true democracy ushered in during the past eight years!” That was indeed a revelation. The irrepressible Qurat ul Ain Hyder instantly came to mind with “Woh Gor-i-Ghariban par/ Aur hanse kar bole / Yeh jungle hamare basaey huyae hain” (Walking past the graveyard of paupers “His Majesty” conferred / This desolate forest is my blessing! (Gardish- i-Rang- i-Chaman)

To boycott or not?

By Anwar Syed

MISUNDERSTANDINGS are a common occurrence in one’s everyday interaction with others. They arise because the message being conveyed is complex, the language is ambiguous, or because the listener’s own prejudices and predispositions have intervened to influence his interpretation.

In politics and statecraft misunderstandings may be contrived to advance the interests of certain parties. Announced repeatedly, they may begin to be taken as gospel truth. Such, for instance, is the proposition that the three ‘pillars’ of state (executive, legislature, and the judiciary) must work together harmoniously if the country’s good order is to be preserved.

Not long ago talk of ‘checks and balances’ was in vogue. That advocacy seems to have been left behind somewhere. General Musharraf says he has sent a majority of judges in the Supreme Court away because they worked at ‘cross purposes’ with the executive. It should not be surprising that he thinks that way. Harmony and, going further in the same vein, uniformity are highly valued in authoritarian regimes.

In democracies each of the three organs of the state does its own work and, in addition, keeps an eye on the others. Even in parliamentary government, where the executive is but an agency of the legislature, the latter maintains surveillance of its functioning through several devices (the question hour and adjournment motions).

It is unquestionably the judiciary’s function in a democracy to determine, when asked, whether the laws formulated by the legislature conform to the country’s constitution. It also sees that the acts of the executive do not violate the constitution and the law. When a victim of the government’s lawlessness goes to the courts with his grievance, it is their inescapable obligation to look into the matter and provide redress if that is warranted.

Public officials in Pakistan are notorious for acting outside the law. Their employer, the government, cannot profess commitment to the rule of law and yet expect the courts to overlook the lawlessness of its agents.

General Musharraf’s government used to cite as one of its great accomplishments the fact that, unlike their predecessors, the assemblies elected in 2002 had completed their full five-year term. This is at best a half truth. The first Constituent Assembly, elected in the fall of 1945, had served four years longer than its originally intended five-year term when Governor General Ghulam Mohammad dismissed it. Its successor served until a martial law administrator dissolved it in 1958. The National Assembly elected under the Constitution of 1962 completed its appointed term.

The Assembly elected in December 1970, which began its tenure in the early spring of 1972, served until its leader, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, requested its dissolution at the beginning of 1977. The next Assembly, which resulted from a rigged election, was once again dismissed by a martial law administrator, General Ziaul Haq.

The National Assembly was dissolved prematurely in 1988, 1990, 1993, and 1996. It happened because, in each case, the president insisted on playing a dominant role that did not belong to him in a parliamentary system and the prime minister resisted his moves. The Constitution did not allow him to dismiss the prime minister if he commanded majority support in the National Assembly whose leader and nominee he was.

But if the Assembly itself were dismissed, he would have to go with it. In all of these cases the Assembly was dissolved merely to get rid of an unwanted prime minister. In 1999 it was again a coup maker, General Pervez Musharraf, who dissolved it.

General Musharraf, president and army chief, has been the effective head of government even after the elections of 2002. The ruling party in the National Assembly has been his creature. The men serving as prime minister have understood that they must be content with the limited and subordinate role he allows them. When his convenience required an incumbent to go, he went away quietly. There was no need to dismiss a prime minister and therefore no need to dissolve the National Assembly. That the assemblies elected in 2002 completed their term is not anything for the general to brag about.

The idea that a boycott is an exercise in righteousness seems to be a part of the Pakistani political culture. Heads of certain political parties have been saying that they intend to boycott the elections scheduled for January because they will be conducted by individuals and agencies that they do not trust. Resort to boycotts is also made on lesser levels. Opposition members of the National Assembly boycott its sessions fairly often; sometimes because the Speaker will not let them have their way, other times because the ruling party will not listen to them or because it has brought in a bill to which they object strongly.

A boycott is essentially an act of abstention or non-participation. Those who undertake it intend it to be, at minimum, a gesture of their disapproval of the proceedings in question. They expect also that it will render the proceedings illegitimate and dysfunctional. These expectations generally turn out to have been misplaced.

A year or so ago the Islamic parties in the National Assembly boycotted the consideration of a bill relating to the protection of women’s rights. It accomplished nothing, for the bill passed both houses of parliament and became law. The Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) decided to boycott local elections ordered by Ziaul Haq in the early 1980s and subsequently came to regret that decision, because its boycott left the way clear for its opponents to win.

The MMA parties, PML (N), and TI want to stay away from the coming elections because they think these cannot be free and fair. All elections in Pakistan, except one, have been rigged. More or less. All governmental and political institutions and their workings are tainted to some degree. That is the way Pakistan is. That is the way many other places in the world are.

This is not to say that we must settle for the existing state of affairs. But I do think that those who wish to change this country for the better must learn to fight evil by targeting it from within.

The election in January will most likely be held even if some parties boycott it. PML (Q) and its allies will have an easy win if their opponents stay out. The legitimacy of such an election will be in doubt. What will happen then? The people at large may repudiate the election and come out protesting. In other words, the current political crisis may continue.

It is hard to say who will bring it to an end and how. It is possible also that none of this will happen and life will return to its usual ways. But if the opposition parties do participate in the election, chances are that their participation will restrain the forces of improbity. Their presence in the arrangements of governance that emerge from the election may likewise have an improving effect.

The writer is a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics.


© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007


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