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Style of governance matters

February 27, 2014


THE mystery about the system of governance Pakistan is now following needs to be resolved as quickly as possible if the state is to be saved from suffering avoidable embarrassment and harm.

Theoretically Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy. That means the government exercises its authority through the cabinet of ministers, which is answerable collectively to parliament. And there the locus of the state’s authority lies. It will be difficult for anyone to claim that this fundamental principle of parliamentary government is evident in practice.

The opposition’s complaint that the government was not rendering parliament its due was not confined to the prime minister’s reluctance to attend its sessions, though in any democracy this would be considered a serious deviation from form. The latest addition to their list of grievances is the unexplained about-turn in the government policy on Syria.

Until a week ago, Pakistan had declined to take sides in the Syrian conflict, maintaining all the time that the issue had to be decided in accordance with the wishes of the people. A radical shift in policy became known only through the joint statement issued at the end of the Saudi crown prince’s visit wherein Pakistan came out in support of Bashar al-Assad’s immediate ouster. The scale of the shift can be gauged from the fact that while demanding a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan never called for a regime change there.

No explanation has been offered for this sudden change of gear. The statement of the leader of the house in the Senate, that suggestions regarding any change of course were mere propaganda, did little credit to the experienced legislator once hailed as Gen Ziaul Haq’s opening batsman. The demand for a full dress debate in parliament — and there is no justification for a closed session on this issue — is unexceptionable. There is more to the matter than the fate of Bashar al-Assad. The issue is rooted in the inter-Arab struggle for supremacy, and suspicions of an anti-Iran undercurrent cannot be discounted. Pakistan cannot afford to take sides in intra-Arab quarrels nor can it be a party to any country’s intrigue against Iran. And only parliament, after a thorough debate, can define the national course.

Regarding relations with Iran, the exchanges on the case of the Iranian guards’ abduction did not enhance Islamabad’s reputation for maturity. The Iranian threat to cross the border in hot pursuit was unjustifiable but the Pakistani spokesperson’s rejoinder was not proper either.

Later on, it was suggested that the Iranian guards might have been killed by an organisation called Jaish al-Adl and therefore Tehran should strengthen its border security. The stakes in Pakistan-Iran relations are high enough to prohibit imprudent verbal duels. Regardless of Tehran’s duty to defend itself, Pakistan cannot ignore any terrorist activities on its side of the border.

Then, what is the policy now on the Taliban threat to Pakistan? The prime minister came to the National Assembly to announce his decision to offer the Taliban negotiations. The talks have run aground while air power is being used to attack the Taliban hideouts. Was it not necessary to take parliament into confidence? Was the cabinet consulted before the prime minister authorised the armed forces to launch air strikes? Bombardment of Pakistani sites and the people is a serious matter and should be subject to parliament’s scrutiny.

There are many other signs of the government’s discomfort with the principle of parliament’s right to oversee its actions. The privatisation of state assets is being carried out with reckless abandon and no heed is paid to either economic experts’ reservations or protest by labour.

There are reasons to suspect a deliberate downgrading of institutions. The Foreign Office’s position is compromised by the refusal to name a foreign minister and the reasons for denying Mr Sartaj Aziz the status of a cabinet minister is beyond comprehension. It could be argued that the Election Commission, the Higher Education Commission and the office of the federal ombudsman have similarly been downgraded.

No responsible citizen can be happy on learning that the cell for disappearances in the attorney-general’s office is being wound up. For one thing, the issue of disappearances is a live one and cannot be blinked at; for another, the defence ministry’s opposition to efforts to resolve the matter will bring it under an unfavourable cloud.

The dangerous consequences of this drift can easily be identified. Democracy flourishes when governance carries the sanction of the people. It is necessary for the government to function under public consent because the people’s sovereign rights cannot be ignored. Besides, consultative processes offer safeguards against errors of judgement all human agencies are prone to.

Over the past couple of decades attempts have been made to move away from majoritarian rule by taking all elements in parliament on board, and now it is necessary to move towards rule by consensus by increasing the possibilities of the government’s discourse with the people. Failure to do so will hamper Pakistan’s transition towards a genuine democracy and widen the gulf between the government and the masses. No political authority can survive such situations for long.

The present government has the difficult task of seeing the country through a variety of crises. It enjoys considerable goodwill but it needs more of it. To ensure that it continues to enjoy the people’s support it must not allow its actions to appear arbitrary or whimsical. The style of governance matters much more than is generally realised.