Obama’s victory

EVEN if he had failed in his bid for the presidency, Barack Obama would have succeeded in transforming the face of US politics, and possibly changing forever the way Americans think. In the event he pulled off a feat that was not only historic but revolutionary, and perhaps even miraculous. He was born, after all, in a country where it was unthinkable until very recently that a black person could be nominated by one of the major parties, let alone become president. The times, it is clear, are changing in America. A majority of citizens have let it be known, in emphatic fashion, that they want their nation to pursue a different course, a new direction. Given the enormity of the problems inherited by the president-elect, the US may continue to falter in areas of governance, economic resurrection and foreign policy. But pause and look at the fine print, which ought really to be in bold. The nation’s social fabric has been strengthened immeasurably: it has been to the darner’s, the cleaner’s and then back to the people. Putting a black man in the White House is a staggering achievement for America where millions of voters chose this year to look at the person, not his race. This wholehearted embrace of multiculturalism will also lift America’s battered image abroad and tell the world that better things may — and that’s a big may, admittedly — be expected of a superpower that has ridden roughshod over real and imagined adversaries in the last eight years when intellect and the White House became mutually exclusive. George W. Bush’s utterances may have been a source of amusement abroad but were also a source of shame for educated Americans.

It has been said that Mr Obama’s bid for the top job in Washington was more a movement than a campaign, on the grounds that movements inspire while campaigns are either just supported or opposed. And inspire he certainly did. He became a symbol of change, and with his oratorical genius and serene demeanour led many to believe that it was time to turn not just the leaf but to close a chapter. And that, yes, it could be done. John McCain, in contrast, represented for the majority a continuation of the past — and a moribund past at that. He ran a decent campaign, however, for he is a person who has always distanced himself from the ultra-right-wing fringe of his party. Even if that position lost him some votes, it wouldn’t have been decisive.

The world awaits how America will reposition itself — or not. Here in Pakistan, Mr Obama’s earlier take on the issue of militancy was sometimes seen as somewhat short-sighted and belligerent. The US certainly cannot go it alone without the support of Pakistan (that is a reality that America must acknowledge publicly if it is an honest broker). But Pakistan too has to understand that a different mood now prevails in Washington. There will be a clear tendency on the part of our patrons to pour money into democracy as opposed to autocracy.

Costly medicines

ACCESS to quality healthcare is a basic right of every citizen, and not a privilege. But the state’s performance in this area is as dismal and inadequate as in any other area in the social sector. The people have largely been left at the mercy of the vagaries of the market owing to meagre public spending in the health sector. Most people either do not have access to medical facilities or simply cannot afford their ever-soaring costs. A vast majority of the country’s population already grappling with household budgets —swelling fast due to a sharp rise in food and energy prices — and stagnant or declining incomes are cutting their food and other essential spending. Many of them will now have to spend more on drugs as local pharmaceutical companies have raised the prices of many of their products by 25 to 57 per cent in the last one and a half months. The manufacturers’ excuse for their unilateral action is simple but inadequate: the increasing prices of their imported raw materials and currency devaluation have significantly jacked up their production costs, forcing them to pass this burden on to consumers. Also, they contend that the rise in the drug prices is still below the “price ceiling” set by the Drug Control Organisation at the time of registration of these drugs. But this explanation doesn’t justify their action.

While the increased production cost might have squeezed their margins to some extent, the industry is still making good profits on their operations. A non-governmental organisation working in the health sector insists that the marketing of most medicines costs the manufacturers only a quarter of the retail prices. If this is true, the manufacturers must act as “responsible corporate citizens”, as this NGO demands, and withdraw the increase. On the other hand, the government needs to do a few things to keep down the drug prices and treatment cost for the sake of the people of this country. First, it is desirable that the government should encourage local manufacturing of raw materials, off-patent and generic medicines by giving fiscal incentives. Secondly, the drug price regulations need to be made more stringent to pre-empt unilateral price increases by the industry in future. Thirdly, it must substantially increase its spending on public health to protect the citizens from soaring healthcare costs in the profit-oriented private sector.

When ties affect families

THE heartrending suicide of 18-year-old Saba in Karachi’s PIB colony speaks volumes for the anxiety and depression faced by those in India and Pakistan whose relatives have been detained by the authorities in each other’s territory. Saba’s parents, who had gone to visit relatives in Jodhpur, were arrested last May for apparently overstaying their visa by two days, although some reports say that their visas had been tampered with. All attempts by family members for their release had proved futile resulting in months of mental anguish for Saba and her sisters. It is equally distressing to imagine what the parents — in another country and a long distance from caring relatives — must feel on being informed of the death of their daughter. Unfortunately, the human angle — the agony of relatives and friends — is hardly considered a factor worthy of reflection in determining the course governments chalk out in their relations. This specially holds true when it comes to the detention of ordinary citizens who have crossed the border inadvertently or even with a valid visa. Sources say that about 68 Pakistani visitors are behind bars in India for having overstayed their visa. Meanwhile, hundreds of fishermen having crossed unintentionally into each other’s territorial waters remain under arrest in both countries.

There have been moves, very recently as well, to review the restrictive visa regime and make travel easier for Indian and Pakistani citizens. But is this possible considering that historical animosities and militancy in both countries has obstructed endeavours to eliminate the prevailing climate of distrust between them? A more pro-people approach is needed by the two governments to take forward their agenda for peace. The momentum for it is there amongst the people themselves. But governmental efforts are necessary to expedite the process through measures like liberalising the visa regime that is currently dominated by cumbersome official procedures and giving a sympathetic hearing to those who have strayed into the other’s territory or, without having any ulterior motive, overstayed their official welcome.

Choosing from the democracy menu

By I.A. Rehman

ONE of the most serious flaws in Pakistan’s politics is the tendency of almost all the leading political parties to choose from the menu of democracy only what suits their factional interest. And they are not consistent even in their choices.

Nov 3 marked the anniversary of one of the blackest days in the country’s history — when an autocratic ruler took the unprecedented step of declaring martial law against his own regime. The act was also more indefensible than the earlier declarations of martial law because it was mainly aimed at punishing the judicial organ of the state, the organ whose questionable orders all authoritarian regimes in Pakistan had used as the fig leaf of legitimacy. And, as several learned observers have pointed out, the judiciary was guillotined not for its own fads and foibles, which are many, but for some monumental failures of the executive.

However, the havoc caused by the proclamation of emergency on Nov 3, 2007 was not limited to the judiciary. Its main victims included both the state, because its constitution had been thrown aside, and the people, because they had been robbed of their fundamental rights. True, the unwarranted aberration lasted for only a month but societies that value their rights would not like to face the ignominy of parting with constitutionalism and human rights even for a day. Also, the damage done during the emergency remains undone.

It is a pity therefore that the lawyers were largely left alone in remembering what was a black day for the entire population. The parties that had vowed to support the black coats were not visible in the streets in the strength they can display on minor provocations. The government contented itself with smiling benignly from its ivory tower on the rabble in the streets below and allowing them the freedom of movement and shouting it would grant women protesting against ‘honour killing’ or a quasi-religious congregation. But the implications of its decision to stay aloof from the protest were clear and unmistakable.

This was the third time in four months that a lack of unanimity in opposition to authoritarianism among the defenders and beneficiaries of the system of elected government exposed the narrow and feeble foundations of democracy in Pakistan.

July 5 was observed as a black day by the People’s Party as it marked the anniversary of Gen Zia’s coup against the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government. All other parties, including great champions of democracy such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and PML-N, ignored the occasion.

What happened in July 1977 was of no concern to them as if the martial law imposed then was a private matter between the PPP and Gen Zia. One hopes the next generation will be able to laugh at this failure to understand that the democratic interests of the people are indivisible.

Then on Oct 12 it was the turn of PML-N to put on black robes (or only wear black armbands) on the anniversary of Gen Musharraf’s putsch against the Nawaz Sharif government. Most other parties, especially great champions of democracy such as the PPP and Jamaat-i-Islami, were not affected, as if what happened on Oct 12, 1999 was a private duel between the PML-N and Gen Musharraf, although it was impossible to explain the martial law of 1999 even in terms of excuses advanced in 1958, 1969 and 1977. One hopes the next generation will also be able to laugh at this failure to realise the indivisible nature of the people’s democratic interests.

Many factors have obstructed the growth of democracy in Pakistan and sectarian politics is quite prominent amongst them. No progress towards substantive democracy will be possible unless all political groups treat each disruption of the constitutional order as an attack on their shared rights and interests. But this realisation will demand much more than waving black flags or shooting arrows at non-existent adversaries. Serious work needs to be done to ensure that the sapling of democracy cannot be uprooted by anyone in the future.

There is need, for instance, to bury two myths invented by praetorian adventurers and swallowed whole by the judiciary. The first myth is contained in the statement that extra-constitutional courses have to be adopted in situations to which the constitution offers no solution. Nobody has ever proved that there can be a situation which cannot be dealt with through constitutional means. Also, what good is a constitution if it leaves the doors open to usurpers of power?

The second myth is that no citizen should lose his sleep if the essential features of the constitution survive a coup. The perverse logic underlying this dictum ignores the fact that a people’s right to be governed by their chosen representatives is the most essential feature of any democratic constitution and the moment this characteristic is lost the rest of the constitution is merely a skeleton without a soul. To argue that the essential features of the constitution can survive a military coup amounts to a blatant abuse of legal jargon.

How can, then, firm foundations of democracy be laid in Pakistan? The answer will surely refer to a long and sustained process of institution-building. A first step can be a full-scale revival of the parliament. Let the parliament be permanently in session with only a few short breaks instead of the present practice of observing long parliamentary holidays interspersed with occasional and brief sessions.

Let the people enjoy the experience of seeing all actions affecting their lives taken by their elected representatives. It will make them partisans of democracy. High on the parliament’s priorities should be a review of all distortions made in governance by one autocrat after another. Now the parliament can, and should, review all laws made without due sanction.

The rolling back of everything done a year ago was what this week’s ‘Democracy Day’ should have been about. The restoration of the judiciary to its Nov 2, 2007 position, with guarantees of its independence, and this condition being as important as the judges’ restoration, was only a part of this rollback. That the present rulers should be happy with the contraption designed by Gen Zia reflects poorly on their democratic professions.

They must realise their duty to prevent the future historian from concluding that the politicians of Pakistan only threw out dictators and not dictatorship because they were unfamiliar with, or possibly afraid of, the democratic alternative.

Demolishing memory

By José Antonio Gurriarán

THE wrecking balls have begun to smash into the walls of the notorious Carabanchel prison, built by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975) to hold its opponents. But former political prisoners who did time inside the walls of the huge prison located in the working-class Madrid neighbourhood of Carabanchel argue that at least part of it should be preserved as a museum on human rights abuses.

An umbrella group linking neighbourhood associations, communists, socialists, anarchists, trade unionists, politicians along the ideological spectrum, liberals and progressive Christians who were once held in the prison’s infamous third and fifth galleries has been holding protests against the demolition.

The administration of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the government of Madrid, ruled by a moderate faction of the right-wing Popular Party (PP), agreed to tear down the prison, which was built after the 1936-1939 civil war fought between the loyalist or Republican forces of the democratically elected leftist government of the time and the nationalist or fascist forces led by Franco.

The agreement was reached between the Interior Ministry and Madrid Mayor José María Ruiz Gallardón who is the son of a university professor, politician and lawyer who defended political prisoners during the dictatorship. The pact establishes that 50,000 square metres of the 200,000 comprising the grounds of the abandoned prison will be used for the construction of 650 low-income housing units, a hospital, a public square with a monument to the prisoners of Carabanchel, and a centre that will carry out research into the human rights abuses committed during the civil war and subsequent dictatorship.

But the Platform for a Centre for Peace and Memory, which groups those opposed to the demolition, disagrees with the plans. “No one even considered destroying the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz (in Poland) and Mauthausen (in Austria), tearing them down and putting new buildings in their place. They were left as a reminder of the horrors that occurred there,” says the former Communist city councilor of Madrid.

Rebollo was not held prisoner in Carabanchel, but he did spend time in the basement of the central police station in downtown Madrid. “How will our children and grandchildren know what happened there if we eliminate every trace of it? It would be an outrage,” he said. Luís Solana, an economist, in a letter to the prime minister said: “if you authorise the demolition, a past history of struggle and sacrifice for the freedom that we now have will be wiped out.” — IPS News

OTHER VOICES - Middle East Press

Unsettling the natives

Oman Tribune

ISRAEL’S decision to cut off funding to settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank that are considered illegal under Israeli law in response to rising escalation in settler violence has come a bit too late…. In fact, the Israeli cabinet decision does not stem from a desire to deliver justice to the Palestinians but from the fact that the settlers are being backed by extreme right-wing factions.… The international community considers all established settlements and more than 100 so-called outposts illegal and the Palestinian leadership has time and again pointed to this as the main obstacle to the … peace talks. It is the threat of internal strife in Israel that has the potential of developing into a major threat to the country’s moderate political leadership that has forced the hand of the caretaker cabinet to take action. The decision has also been spurred by the warning from Israel’s domestic intelligence agency that right-wing activists may attempt to carry out assassinations.

It is ironic that [when] … only Palestinians were being targeted by the right-wing settlers not much action was taken except for a few mild interventions by Israeli security forces. It is now that elements within the militant settlers have begun to attack Israeli security forces that the government has taken the action. — (Nov 3)

Rain, rain and more rain

Yemen Times

THE storm affecting our region and especially the costal areas has caused at least 50 deaths…. Even in Sana’a, there is so much rain in the streets and the drainage system is screaming under the pressure….

Yet at the same time there is hardly any water in the government water network, especially around Hadda and the diplomatic area, where residents have to buy domestic water, adding yet another expense to the increasing cost of living. Such … irony makes us wonder how come there is so much water all around and yet not in our taps. We are using underground water that had been stored for decades for our toilets and irrigation while we could have stored and used rainwater for such purposes instead….

Roads, buildings, bridges and all kinds of infrastructure have been damaged one way or the other. There is concern that Shibam historical city — the ancient skyscrapers —which is a Unesco-reserved landmark is getting severely damaged by the storm. Socotra, the beautiful island in the Indian Ocean, also a natural heritage site, has been drenched completely, and the people who usually live there in huts and slums are now homeless. Their livelihood depends mainly on animal livestock and some farming, and both of these assets if not completely ruined are affected largely. — (Nov 1)



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