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DAWN - Editorial; February 24, 2008

February 24, 2008


Pressure tactics

CIVIL to a fault, the top American and British diplomats in Pakistan have paid not one but two courtesy calls each on Mr Asif Zardari and Mr Nawaz Sharif respectively in the wake of the Feb 18 polls. But of course there is more to these meet-and-greet sessions than simply congratulating the PPP and PML-N leaders on the re-emergence of their parties as the country’s political powerhouses. The US ambassador went the extra mile and also met the ANP chief whose party has staged a comeback as a major player in the NWFP, a province that is of singular interest to American policymakers. Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif have already agreed to serve as partners in a coalition government and like-minded parties like the ANP are expected to be part of the new power equation at the centre and in the provinces. As for the US and the UK, it is all too clear that the recent manoeuvrings of their top diplomats are aimed at ‘convincing’ Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif that they must accommodate and work with President Musharraf despite the harsh treatment that they and their parties received over the years at the hands of the former general. By going about this so publicly, the western powers are guilty of a grave folly.

Before the judiciary crisis and before civil society lent its voice to calls for Mr Musharraf’s ouster, those most vociferously opposed to the president were the followers of religio-political leaders and pro-Taliban militants. For them, the president’s pro-US stance was enough to deem him unworthy of his high office in the Islamic republic. The Bush administration, unmindful as always of cultural and contextual subtleties, only made life worse for the president by publicly supporting him when they could have done so just as easily through discreet one-to-one communiqués. President Musharraf thus came to be seen as something of a US proxy on a taut leash. The US may have helped prop up the Musharraf regime but it also contributed to his fall from grace, which was largely of his own doing but overt American meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs did the president’s cause no good whatsoever.

The same mistakes must not be repeated now that a genuinely representative government is on the verge of coming to power. The popular mandate vested in the PPP and PML-N should not be taken for granted. Even a week is a long time in politics, and public sentiment could shift if these parties are seen to be toeing the US line. Moreover, many of the concerns voiced by Washington on which it felt it enjoyed President Musharraf’s support are also the concerns of the majority in Pakistan. The PPP and the PML-N, for instance, are equally committed to fight terrorism, build a stable democracy and work for economic development. The US would hurt its own interest were it to be seen as pushing Pakistan too hard.

Another Turkish incursion

IN these times of violence and political upheaval, the last thing the Middle East needs is a new war front or the violation of state sovereignty that could inflame passions. In this regard, although the details are sketchy, Turkey’s latest military incursion into Iraq to destroy PKK bases will complicate an already delicate situation. Turkey has genuine grievances against the rebel Kurdish organisation that has launched several attacks on its military from the mountain fastness of northern Iraq where the Kurds have a regional government. However, although opposed to the PKK militants, Baghdad is justifiably worried that ‘minor mistakes’ could ‘lead to a wider problem’, and has joined other countries in urging restraint. It is a piece of advice that Turkey would do well to heed. Instead of launching air attacks and sending possibly thousands of troops to eliminate rebel hideouts, thus fuelling the conflict, Ankara should be ready to listen to calls for a political solution. The fact is that Turkey, that has a large Kurdish population, launched similar offensives in the 1990s and has been combating the PKK on its own soil since the 1980s. Frustratingly for it, the organisation has defied elimination through force.

In other areas, though, Ankara has the advantage. The PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by several countries; indeed, it has resorted to violence against its own people which is why support for its tactics is limited even in Kurdish circles. It is this aspect that Turkey needs to turn into its strength. If Ankara’s stance is perceived as being correct by its own Kurdish population, the PKK would suffer from a loss of credibility in the eyes of those it claims to represent. Economic development of Kurdish areas, resource-sharing, greater language rights, and acceptance of the Kurds as an ethnic entity with the right to practise their culture as they choose can yield positive results. Said to be the world’s largest ethnic community without a state of their own, sensitivities among the Kurds are aplenty. In all the countries where they are in sizeable numbers (Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Iran and Turkey), they have faced hostile environments and violence.

It is time to end their feeling of alienation by helping them progress in their respective countries and reassuring them that they are not being discriminated against.

Stranded in the dark

THE election furore seems to have drowned out all other issues — big and small, trivial and not so trivial. Almost a week after the polls, newspapers are still splashed with headlines and reports about the winners and the whiners. Most people in the country, meanwhile, have already returned to the daily grind called life. A small single-column news report from the central Punjab district of Hafizabad about the gruesome murder of a taxi driver comes as a reminder that we must keep coming back to the small detail while focusing on the big picture. The incident ostensibly committed by the driver’s fares vividly highlights the fact that post-poll Pakistan and its problems continue to be the same as before. While the killing highlights the lack of security in the heart of the country — many hundred miles inland from the troubled north-western regions — it also serves as a reminder as to how unsafe it is to travel in the countryside after sunset. People requiring to run urgent errands — be it a medical emergency or a social duty — are often stranded for the lack of transport to travel outside the towns and cities because taxi drivers are unwilling to take the risk and public transport simply doesn’t exist beyond urban areas.

That murders of taxi drivers — like the one that took place in Hafizabad on Thursday last — are a regular occurrence means the authorities have failed to evolve mechanisms to deal even with crimes that have a discernible pattern to them. It should not be difficult for local police to form a system for the registration of taxis and their passengers at all stands in their jurisdiction. Though this does not constitute a foolproof insurance against the drivers’ or the passengers’ killing, it still can prove to be a viable deterrent. If a murder is committed anyway, a registration system should certainly come in handy in the investigations.

A protest vote against the regime

By Mohammad Waseem

THE Feb 18 elections have registered a protest vote. The public cast its ballot against the Musharraf government for committing a series of moral, legal and constitutional violations during the eleven months after Mar 9, 2007.

Some read the public mood right and decided to participate in the elections despite a legal controversy surrounding the president, the second suspension of the constitution under him by way of the emergency rule on Nov 3 and a massive crackdown on the judiciary. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif along with lesser leaders were criticised for consenting to play on the turf laid down by Musharraf.

Others including Imran Khan, Achakzai and Qazi Hussain Ahmed focused on the actions of omission and commission emanating from the presidency rather than the sentiments of the public, and thus opted for boycott. The vote-starved public wanted representation in the business of the state at any cost. The message was: no quits. If there were any doubts about the efficacy and moral legitimacy of polls, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination removed them in one go. The tables were turned against the regime. As polls drew near, it was the Musharraf government that was accused of looking for options other than elections.

Musharraf read it all wrong. The movement for the restoration of the suspended Chief justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhry, led by Aitzaz Ahsan and his legal team, gave a direction to the public sentiment of frustration accumulated over the years. Lawyers took the protest to provinces, districts and tehsils, and to metropolises, small towns and the countryside. What was as significant as the issue at stake was the quantum and direction of public mobilisation.

What the civil society started as a legal battle ended up with the victory of the political opposition in elections within a year. Mobilisation was the key factor. Both the ex-prime ministers garnered the support of the increasingly mobilised public. The restoration of the Chief Justice on July 20 by the Supreme Court injected new authority to the higher courts. Instead of getting the right message based on the need to co-exist with the judiciary, President Musharraf again miscalculated the strength of the bar and the bench.

The emergency-cum-martial law declared on Nov 3 brought to surface the low power potential of the Constitution in this country. One often heard that in India the Constitution was above the ruling elite while in Pakistan the ruling elite was above the Constitution. Musharraf’s clampdown on the constitutional edifice of the country only served to highlight the dichotomy still further in the world of nations at large.

The worldwide condemnation of emergency, including the suspension of membership of the Commonwealth as punishment, put the president on the defensive. At home, the emergency refuelled the sentiments of agitation as PCO replaced the Constitution and judges were sent home in large numbers. As if all that was not enough, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on Dec 27 robbed the president of the residual moral authority. The alleged lack of security for Benazir heaped criticism on him.

Under the increasing pressure at home and abroad, the government’s plans to hold elections on its own terms started to unravel. Till then, it had taken several arbitrary decisions outside the accepted moral and legal norms. A sitting chairman of the Senate belonging to the PML-Q was appointed as caretaker prime minister, against the very concept of a non-partisan authority responsible for holding elections. Continuation with a hand-picked Chief Election Commissioner, who did not enjoy the confidence of the opposition, was no help either.

As the election campaign picked up slowly, stories about pre-poll rigging poured in. There were allegations of intelligence agencies operating behind the scene and nazims openly campaigning in favour of the PML-Q candidates. The latter allegedly received development funds, administrative support of all kinds and disproportionate coverage on the electronic media. The spirit of normlessness prevailed all around.

As criticism of the non-level playing field piled up, the ear-plug strategy of the government collapsed. Election observers from abroad came in droves, including the American Senators led by John Kerry. The Congress promised action if elections were not fair. The new COAS General Kayani committed himself to keeping the army away from elections, except for security purposes. All this barred the way to moving from pre-poll rigging to the polling day rigging and onwards to post-poll rigging in the form of arbitrary announcement of results.

It is now clear that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif on top of the PPP and PML-N respectively never disappeared from the public imagination. The official propaganda against them failed to destroy them. They staged a comeback in the first opportunity that came their way.

At the other end, the official policy to create a new pattern of leadership on top of the PML-Q did not succeed. The Chaudhries were not cut out for the role that the president envisaged for them. As non-leaders, they failed to transform their party faction into a fully-fledged party carrying a well-defined profile of its own. Under the Shujaat Hussain-Pervaiz Elahi duo, the PML-Q remained stuck with the stigma of being a King’s party. They could not carve out a niche for themselves in terms of policy, ideology or charisma.

The JUI-F earned the opprobrium of the voting public for indirectly supporting Musharraf. Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s controversial role vis-à-vis the issue of dissolution of the NWFP Assembly before the presidential election on Oct 6, 2008 cost him dearly in terms of vote as well as public standing. It led to parting of ways with JI and eventually to a split in the MMA.

The ethnic revival of sorts characterised the politics of NWFP and Sindh. The ANP’s comeback has restored the traditional political landscape of NWFP, at the visible expense of Islamic parties. The other ethnic party, MQM of Sindh, has stayed the course, especially after JI and JUP left the field open for it in Karachi. The freak election results in Balochistan, which returned PML-Q as the leading party, reflect the potential withdrawal of nationalist forces from the political arena and the virtual collapse of the MMA.

The fateful day of Mar 9, 2007 started the downslide of President Musharraf. In the election round, Justice Iftikhar won and President Musharraf lost, even as neither of them directly belonged to the political arena. What will happen in the second round by way of government formation and restoration of judiciary remains to be seen. There is many a slip between the cup and the lip.

OTHER VOICES: Indian Press

Pakistan speaks

The Times of India

IN Pakistan, the clouds of despair are lifting. Elections — widely seen as a referendum on President Musharraf — may be bringing to an end close to a decade of military rule.

That so many Pakistanis combated apathy and fear to come out to vote, and that the voting process was by and large peaceful, are indicators that the country may have turned a corner…

Most Pakistanis have voted for moderate parties. What’s most significant is that the North-West Frontier Province, which is seen as a Taliban backyard…has given more seats to the secular Awami National Party…

Phases of military rule since General Ziaul Haq’s takeover in 1977 have played ducks and drakes with Pakistan’s Constitution and in effect overthrown the parliamentary form of government. There’s increasing pressure on Musharraf to step down, but what’s more important is to form a government of national unity that would shore up Pakistan’s institutions.

…If the PPP and PML-N cobble together a two-thirds majority…they would have enough votes to impeach (Musharraf). That’s where the role of army chief Ashfaq Kayani, who was appointed by Musharraf, becomes important. Kayani…could step in at that point. In general a peaceful, non-acrimonious transition of power that protects everybody’s interests, including the army’s, may be best for Pakistan.

India should look forward to the transition to a civilian regime, which could revive the spirit of the Lahore declaration that was signed between the two countries in 1999…A full normalisation of ties between India and Pakistan can transform the subcontinent… — (Feb 20)

Money scores

News Today

BIG bucks and Bollywood bling. It was a combination of these two flashy forces that was on view at the auction for cricketers to play in the IPL, a twenty20 league that hopes to lure the young set with cricket’s version of club league.

It must be some kind of sobering revelation to the cricketers that the headlines that they are making today are not due to the numbers they managed on the field but off it. …Dhoni has got the bold typeface in the papers because of the numericals (six crore rupees in this case) that accompany his choice. Unless he gets equally matching numbers on the actual score sheet, the headlines will quickly shift to somebody else.

…Money and sport have always been uneasy bed-mates. But they have had to traipse together. Each needs the other, even as there is an inherent difference in the soul of the two. Sports, in essence, stands for things that goes beyond the purview of money.

Mateship, loyalty to a cause, heroism, grace under pressure, national pride are things that money can’t bid. Sports…may lure individuals with its unique attractions. But at the end of the day, money is an important reason for those individuals to continue in the game. It is a complex conundrum that showcases the contradictions of life like no other.

…At a time when the one-day format is at a crossroads and the popularity of the World Cup is at an all-time low, a shake-up is what cricket needs right now.

Quite how Test cricket will be affected remains to be seen. But for the now, listen to the money talking. — (Feb 21)

© DAWN Media Group , 2008