Polls can save the system

Published January 9, 2011

ONLY a day after the president of Pakistan signed the 19th Amendment which along with the 18th Amendment makes the subversion, suspension or abrogation of the constitution by the show or use of force an act of high treason, the political leaders through their machinations seem to be doing just that.

The prime minister lost his majority in parliament but refused to quit office; the president did not ask him to obtain a vote of confidence; the leader of the largest party in the opposition doesn't want his job; the elections are still two years away; bigotry and lawlessness have taken the life of a governor and made life unsafe; inflation is rampant and corruption rife. In this scenario if the constitutional authorities do not rescue the people some other extra-constitutional force will surely try.

Babar Awan, the ever-confident and garrulous law minister, says “we will cross the bridge when we come to it”. The real bridge is there now to cross. If democracy is not to go the way it did in the past, Mr Awan should advise the prime minister to call elections now rather than wait till 2013.

Whether Mr Yousuf Raza Gilani flounders along as minority prime minister or the leader of another party dislodges him and cobbles yet another coalition (which is unlikely to be more stable or less corrupt), the woes of the people will not end. Mr Zardari's tribute to political leaders for showing political maturity in reaching a consensus on the amendments was premature. The test of their, and his own, maturity would lie in reaching a consensus on going back to the people for a fresh mandate now.

Let it not be forgotten that the constitutions of 1956, 1962 and 1973 were abrogated/suspended when the polls were either delayed or rigged. Pervez Musharraf held the constitution in abeyance but undertook to govern the country “as nearly as may be in accordance with the constitution”. Notwithstanding the stipulations of the 18th Amendment, the ultimate safeguard against the “use or show of force” lies in timely recourse to the people and abiding by their verdict. The politicians must act before the generals do.

The on-going frantic efforts to “save the system” miss the essential point that mid-term polls are a part of the parliamentary system. Considering the manner in which numerous, diverse and dissenting parties are presently represented in the National Assembly, democracy can be saved only by ascertaining the wishes of its custodians — the people — who remain but helpless, or indifferent, spectators to the sordid drama being played out in front of them. About deals behind closed doors they can only guess.

The large, costly, covetous and mutually antagonistic cabinets at the centre and in the provinces over the last three years have done incalculable harm to the parliamentary institutions and destroyed governance of the country. It was as if the governments at the centre and in the provinces exist only to please or placate the politicians and clerics rather than serve the cause of the people.

They have no common policy or direction. Each minister, seemingly, is working to promote his own or his faction's interest. The result has been mismanagement, or no management at all, causing widespread discontent among the people and demoralisation in the bureaucracy. It could get worse if intrigue and bribery were to result in the formation of larger and more artificial coalitions.

The parliamentary system rests not on the constitution alone but on moral values and age-old traditions which have been wholly undermined by Mr Zardari's doctrine, or ruse, of reconciliation. It signifies little more than the people banding together for power and profit without a common programme or intention to work for the welfare of the people as a whole and not of their own caste or creed alone.

The principle underlying reconciliation, seemingly, is to give every individual or party who matters a share in the perks of power without a matching responsibility. It hasn't worked. No one has ever been satisfied — not even Maulana Fazlur Rahman though almost everyone of his party was given one or the other office of profit or patronage.

Only Nawaz Sharif made a special effort to stay out of the conciliatory caboodle but he too wouldn't, as he puts it, destabilise the government nor would prop it up if it were to collapse. It was left to an acerbic Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to make up for this vacillation in the National Assembly and in the public accounts committee, an angry Khawaja Asif in TV shows and an assertive Shahbaz Sharif by sidelining the PPP ministers in his cabinet.

The worst departure from the parliamentary tradition came from the founder of the reconciliation philosophy himself. Being the working chief of his own party, Mr Zardari also chose to be the head of state rather than of government. Combined with his position as heir to a charismatic, martyred wife, he became the repository of all power. It is hard to imagine a parliamentary government in which the executive authority doesn't vest in the prime minister and his cabinet. The Westminster being our ideal, our president in functions and prestige should have been in the image of Queen Elizabeth of England or Pratibha Patil of India. On the contrary, it is hard to name another head of state who is more controversial and authoritarian than Mr Zardari.

That said, the mid-term polls would not resolve the more complex problems of governance in Sindh. Altaf Hussain's MQM is sure to emerge as the dominant party in Karachi and Hyderabad and the PPP, if at all, is likely to lose some ground to the Sindhi nationalists elsewhere in the province.

Party rivalries thus might get a sharper edge. Recognising the intensity of ethnic passions, a new compact must be hammered out based on the distribution of subjects between the provincial departments and local councils. Homilies will not do nor will bombast.




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