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President’s speech

March 22, 2011

IN the days leading up to President Zardari’s speech to a joint session of parliament yesterday, some quarters in the media and politics had been billing March 22 as a turning point, the beginning of the end for the federal government. But what transpired yesterday in parliament was more damp squib than earth-shattering fireworks. There are several points to be made here. First, the event itself: the president’s speech. Like the previous two speeches of President Zardari at the start of the parliamentary year, this year’s speech also lacked substance and leapt from one platitude to the next. By any measure, last year was a tough year for parliament and the PPP-led government. The economic slowdown deepened and widened; the government failed to get key financial legislation passed; militancy remained a potent threat, even if the frequency of attacks dipped; Karachi remained volatile; the insurgency in Balochistan continued; politics trumped policy — the list of governance failures was real and long. As the constitutional head of state, Mr Zardari should have candidly acknowledged these failures and exhorted the government — his government — to do better. Sadly, none of the statesmanship Pakistan so desperately needs from its leaders was evident in his speech yesterday. Effusive praise for a government which has seen its public approval ratings plummet was not what the country needed.

Next, the opposition’s behaviour. The quiet, orderly walkout staged by the opposition can be characterised in several ways. The most flattering is that the manner of the walkout signified a new maturity in Pakistani politics, where unparliamentary behaviour inside parliament was eschewed. The less charitable explanation is that there was a cynical sell-out, the self-interest of the various opposition parties winning the day as the PPP expertly exploited the all-too-familiar cracks in the opposition ranks. Whatever the truth, there is some relief in the fact that political upheaval has been avoided — at least for now. At the end of the day, none of Pakistan’s deep economic, security and social problems can be addressed if the political waters are churning. Ultimately, however, the onus is on the government to improve its record. Empty rhetoric and clever exploitation of differences in the opposition are not a substitute for better governance.

Finally, a word about the destabilising role of sections of the media. Clearly, the political class needs its feet held close to the fire — the elites are too entrenched to initiate on their own the deep reforms the country needs. But too often sections of the media appear to be ringing the death knell of the government instead of being cheerleaders of democracy. A little patience, please.