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Time to let the voters speak

September 01, 2012

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WHEN the PPP didn’t win an outright majority in the 1988 election, it was reported Mir Murtaza Bhutto suggested that his sister sit in the opposition.

His view was that there was no point in forming a government after a deal with the establishment as such an administration wouldn’t have the leeway, let alone the ability, to fulfil its manifesto pledges, deliver to the electorate in any significant way.

Ms Benazir Bhutto of course ignored this advice. Her contention was that her party workers and supporters had lived through a long nightmare at the hands of the Zia regime. Being in government, she’d be able to bring them relief and reward them. Another factor playing heavily on her mind was that having boycotted the 1985 party-less election, she had allowed other players an opportunity to establish themselves, the foremost among them one Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif.

The Sharifs may have entered the political arena at the behest of the Zia regime but they were able to entrench themselves in Punjab because they used their provincial government to extend patronage, favours and expand their support base.

Was Ms Bhutto correct in accepting power when its transfer was conditional on so many restrictions that power itself was rendered a fallacy?

Where centre-to-right dominated political parties, bureaucracy, judiciary, media and the military had issues with the PPP’s relatively progressive agenda anyway, instances of mismanagement and corruption surfaced when Ms Bhutto’s government was put under the microscope.

All the stories weren’t fabricated. Among those who had been victimised by the military regime, many came forward with gusto to reap the rewards of democracy. But the biggest prize was claimed by the person who’d married the erstwhile military regime’s prime victim.

It is important to see things in perspective. Reprehensible as it was, the PPP’s corruption and maladministration was by no means unprecedented. Bigger economic crimes were committed before the PPP and after it by many stars of the establishment, their surrogates.

And extraordinary means were used to bring to an end both the PPP governments headed by Ms Bhutto in the late1980s/early 1990s. But even sympathetic commentators agreed that her own contribution to her downfall was not marginal.

The most tragic aspect for many PPP supporters was that the liberal-progressive agenda espoused by the party suffered a setback during its tenure. Few, if any, legislative/administrative measures were evidenced to strengthen this cause.

Therefore, when the PPP returned to power in 2008 after the tragic murder of its leader there was a faint hope that lessons of the past would inform its course of action and it would be keen to consolidate its support base. It wasn’t to be.

The turning point came when, having first decided to hand over power to its coalition partners in Punjab, the PPP leadership heeded disastrous counsel and used the infamous Dogar court to try to dislodge the PML-N from Lahore.

Stung by this betrayal, the PML-N turned to one and all possible allies, hobnobbing with the military and first using the restoration of the ousted judiciary, then the judiciary itself as a weapon to exact retribution from the PPP.

If it had any plan at all to change discriminatory legislation and roll out a road map for a progressive future, an isolated and paranoid PPP retreated into a defensive mode. All that mattered to it was survival at any cost.

And any cost meant just that. Law and order has deteriorated to a point where the majority feels insecure in perpetuity. It is pointless to talk of vulnerable sections such as Shia Muslims, ethnic and religious minorities.

Whatever resilience the economy may have had to protect itself from the fallout of the global recession, was reduced to nought by the on-going power crisis. It would amount to one significant failure after the government’s abject efforts to protect the life and limb of its citizens.

In these columns you have read enough criticism of the military, its surrogates whether in the runaway militant movement or the equally-out-of-control media or even among the ranks of the political stars.

You may also recall that one hasn’t shied away from slamming attempts to undermine an elected government whether they have come through a Shuja Pasha or allegedly through a Faqeer Hussain.

One has consistently advocated that the only possible solution to Pakistan’s multitudes of issues is elections at regular intervals so the people can sift through the contestants and throw out those who don’t deliver. Nothing else will work. If the government takes a dispassionate look around itself, it will perhaps reach the conclusion that whether it is its own failure or the successful conspiracies of its adversaries, it is unable to govern.

Its helplessness in defending a teenaged (even if she is older than 11) Christian girl reportedly with serious learning difficulties from a patently ludicrous accusation is a case in point. How helpless can a government be when it cites the safety of a child as a reason to keep her in jail?

The daily diet of murders whether someone’s belief is the cause or their ethnicity is the motive, its inability to even roll back one toxic law enacted in the Zia years, places serious questions over the PPP’s performance.

Admittedly, it is a big plus for the government it has remained tolerant of criticism, even of the malicious denomination. However, being tolerant of bigots, murderers and terrorists is less a virtue and more a manifestation of a weak spine.

It has passed some landmark legislation on provincial autonomy, resource distribution and an independent election commission. This legislative framework without governance, sadly, delivers zero.

The government’s singular achievement has been to resist writing a letter to the Swiss authorities, lifting the constitutional immunity to the president. It’s time it returned to the electorate to seek a verdict on its contention that it couldn’t deliver because it wasn’t allowed to.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com