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A government in peril

June 26, 2012

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IT may only be a brief interlude in the intense power play which shook the country last week. It was seemingly a smooth affair when the National Assembly elected with a handsome majority Raja Pervez Ashraf as the country’s new prime minister. But it may not be long when, like his predecessor, he too will be dragged into a legal battle, fighting for his survival in office.

Raja Ashraf’s swift ascent to power is a red rag to the Supreme Court which had earlier ordered an investigation against him for his alleged involvement in the rental power scam. Besides, the new prime minister would also be required by the court’s order to write a letter to the Swiss authorities for the reopening of money-laundering case against President Zardari. He is certainly in the prime minister’s house on a short lease.

With a controversial reputation Raja Ashraf is not the man to restore public faith in an administration plagued by charges of corruption, mismanagement and ineptitude. It was a collective shame when 211 members voted for a man who not long ago lost his portfolio as water and power minister. It also goes to prove that corruption is not an issue in their political culture.

Zardari may have succeeded in keeping together a coalition of disparate political parties despite being beleaguered by a prolonged battle with the superior judiciary, the chasm with the military establishment and rising unpopularity. But the situation is fast becoming untenable for his administration. The gloves are off as the standoff between the government and an increasingly pro-active superior judiciary takes an ominous turn.

Former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s unceremonious ouster by what is described as a ‘soft judicial coup’ has not removed the basic source of tension between the two institutions of the state. There is no sign of either side softening its position, particularly on the issue of writing the letter to the Swiss authorities. In this situation Raja Pervez Ashraf may just be a ‘sacrificial lamb’. But it will not be without a cost.

The National Assembly is only eight months away from completing its five-year term, but to break the present political logjam it may be sensible to call elections a bit earlier. Most of the parties in the ruling coalition, including the PPP, are, however, not ready to go to polls this year. Perhaps there is a reason for this reluctance.

Gilani’s four-year rule has left a grim legacy. Mired deep in allegations of corruption his government failed to deliver in all areas. Absence of governance and policy paralysis have been the hallmark of his government. There has been a complete breakdown of law and order. State authority is absent in many parts of the country. A personalised way of governance has seriously eroded the institutions.

The economy has been the major casualty of the government’s ineptitude. Four finance ministers and three State Bank governors in four years may well be a record. Spiralling budgetary deficit and falling investment is going to haunt future governments.

The country is facing the worst energy crisis of its history, crippling the economy further. Angry protesters in the streets in many parts of the country, smashing everything coming their way present a frightening spectacle. Absence of strong governance and law enforcement has given huge space to the religious and sectarian extremists. Thousands of people have been killed in sectarian and ethnic violence. The country has sunk deep into the abyss of political uncertainty with little hope of getting out of this situation.

Multiple power centres have filled the vacuum as the government is hit by policy paralysis. The military, which had taken a back seat after the fall of Gen Musharraf, seems to have reasserted itself. For the first time the superior judiciary has become an active power player adding to the political instability.

While the country is consumed by this political soap opera, Pakistan’s relations with the United States have drifted to a new low. Tension seems to have escalated after a recent warning by the US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta that American patience was running low. Washington’s frustration seems to be emanating from the escalation in insurgent attacks and rising coalition casualties in Afghanistan which are blamed on the Haqqani network operating from its base in North Waziristan.

A policy disarray in Islamabad and the widening civil and military divide is partly responsible for this downslide in this critical relationship. The issue of a US apology over last year’s killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers remains a stumbling block in the way of moving forward. But it could have been resolved in February had the government not asked the Obama administration to delay the apology for political reasons. The political instability and a highly unpopular leadership at the helm make it more difficult to deal with the external challenges.

The holding of free and fair elections may not be easy either in this highly volatile political situation and perpetual standoff among the state institutions. The government and opposition have yet to agree on a name for the election commissioner. A consensus is also required for the constitution of a neutral caretaker administration to conduct elections. The credibility of elections would remain doubtful without agreement among the political parties on these critical issues.

Conspiracy theories are plentiful with the deepening political crisis. There has been much talk about the possibility of a military-backed long-term technocratic interim set-up which could set right the economy, law and order and other critical issues. But such an arrangement sans political and constitutional legitimacy cannot deliver long-term stability. However flawed and painstaking it may be, the democratic process is the only way through which change can come.

The writer is an author and a journalist.