THE JIT report in the money-laundering case implicating top PPP leaders has generated a political storm. An attempt to bring about regime change in Sindh has exacerbated matters. The federal government’s clumsy move to impose a travel ban on all those named in the inquiry report, including Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, and the PTI’s campaign for Mr Shah’s ouster have brought the swords out. The chief justice’s admonition may have dampened the PTI charge, but the game is not over yet.
Although the veracity of the JIT report has yet to be substantiated, the financial scandal involving the Zardari family has found the PPP and Sindh government in deep water. Most troubling for the party is that it is not only the fate of the former president that hangs in the balance, but also the political future of his son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. The young scion is seen by PPP supporters as their last hope of keeping alive the Bhutto legacy.
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Despite being politically handicapped because of living under the shadow of his wily father, Bilawal has made significant impact on parliamentary politics. Being implicated in the financial scandal could affect his politics. The charges are indeed damning and could see the PPP leadership engaged in a prolonged legal and political battle that would constrain the party and the Sindh government.
Political engineering by the PTI in Sindh is not likely to work.
There seems to be little possibility of the provincial government being overthrown or governor rule being imposed in the province. But the crisis may well have revived the old project of political engineering in Sindh that could see defections being encouraged from the PPP. We have witnessed such a move in the province in the past too. The ‘successful’ political engineering of Karachi seems to have given impetus to the implementation of the plan at the provincial level.
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Bad governance and allegations of widespread corruption have not helped the PPP’s cause. Still, it will not be easy to manipulate the recently elected provincial assembly. There is no Jam Sadiq to coerce into submission its members or buy them over. Any such step could fuel an ethnic divide and strengthen extremist sub-nationalist forces.
Any move to destabilise the provincial government would be disastrous for the entire system, particularly at a time when the country faces multiple economic and political challenges. The politics of confrontation will not benefit either side. The PTI’s move is reminiscent of the politics of the 1990s when governments were installed or removed overnight, an exercise that involved forcing or bribing legislators to switch sides.
Ironically, the PTI, which came to power on the slogan of the rule of law and the sanctity of the vote, is becoming a key player in this sordid game. The reason behind the move against the PPP government is not the provincial government’s incompetence or the widespread allegations of corruption against party leaders; it is the desire for complete political control that is driving the campaign towards what some analysts describe as the establishment of a one-party system. That may never happen, but such moves could widen the political fault lines and have serious consequences for the integrity of the country.
While the fears of the PPP of the country’s being pushed towards a unitary form of government and of an attempt to abolish the 18th Amendment may be exaggerated, there is little doubt regarding the PTI government’s intention to take control of the country’s second-largest province.
Its electoral victory in Karachi, the country’s largest city and its financial and industrial lifeline, has put the party on a strong footing in provincial politics. The PTI’s rise to becoming the second-largest party in Sindh with its control in the urban areas has completely changed the political dynamics of the troubled province. That has given the party a heady sense of power. The statements from the federal ministers and the PTI’s provincial leadership are a clear manifestation of the power syndrome at play.
Moreover, a strong centre has always been an issue close to the heart of the security establishment. The passage of the 18th Amendment through consensus among political parties across the board is seen with scepticism by the security establishment. The generals believe that greater financial and administrative autonomy for the provinces is detrimental to national integration and security. The top brass has expressed its reservations over the amendment publicly.
The military’s main concern is that a greater share of finances going to the provinces not only weakens the federal government’s control but is also one of the causes of the country’s growing fiscal problems. The military’s reservation over the 18th Amendment came out strongly in remarks attributed to the army chief last year. That has also evoked a strong reaction from all the political parties signatory to the most critical changes in the country’s Constitution. The PTI, which had no representation in parliament in that period, is obviously not that keen about the amendment.
Surely there are some questions about devolving power and the capacity of the provinces to handle the situation emanating from the transfer of responsibilities, but those issues can be gradually overcome. For sure, there is also a need for reviewing the NFC award to address the serious fiscal problems faced by the federal government. But comments against the amendment naturally raise questions about the establishment’s intention and fuel conspiracy theories.
Unsurprisingly, the PPP has tried to connect the action against its leaders with the purported move to abolish the 18th Amendment. There may not be any linkage between them but it is mainly the responsibility of the government to dispel those concerns. The silence of the administration has further complicated the issue.
It is important to separate the accountability process from politics, but unfortunately, it is not happening. The government’s own actions and remarks reinforce apprehensions. Political engineering is not the solution; in fact, it has been the major cause of political instability in the country and the reason for the growing alienation within. Such a move has not worked in the past, nor will it work now.
Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2019