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Much ado about nothing much

December 30, 2012


IT’S been a busy week, it’s the end of the year, so straight to some talking points.

The anti-democrats If you talk long enough, you’re liable to say a revealing thing or two. Qadri, the political impresario who electrified non-voters, said many odd things in Lahore.

Politicians are corrupt, system needs cleansing, good governance, blah, blah, blah. In channelling the establishment’s thinking, he did a bang-up job.

But embedded in that quasi-logic was an insight into why short-circuiting the democratic project is always such an imperative for some folks.

Initially, the argument is always couched in instrumentalist terms: if you want a better, more prosperous, more stable, more secure Pakistan, than you need a more committed, more professional, more patriotic type of leader. I.E. anyone but a constituency politician, and preferably someone in uniform.

But it’s not really about ends; it’s about control — or more appropriate, an unwillingness to cede control.

How dare the two largest parties, elected by the people, decide on their own who will steer the country through the next election, Qadri thundered.

How dare the two largest parties, elected by the people, exclude the other ‘stakeholders’ in the system, Qadri roared. Interesting.

Said with the conviction of Qadri, the underlying logic can get obscured.

The PPP and PML-N aren’t just the two largest political parties in Pakistan. They represent two very different parts of the population spectrum.

Rural and urban. Landless peasants and small-business owners. Poor and middle class; middle class and upper class. Secular and conservative. Agriculturalists and big business.

But it’s just not that. In mature democracies, the two-party system is an accepted, and acceptable, standard.

Try telling the Democrats and the Republicans in America that they can’t make legislative and governance choices on the people’s behalf because they’re only two parties.

In saying what he did, Qadri — and the establishment that cheers him on or set him loose or blows him kisses or whatever — expressed a contempt not just for politicians, but of politics itself, of the electoral kind anyway.

The Qadri & co agenda may be sold as the promise of fixing Pakistan, but it’s really about controlling Pakistan — for their good, not yours or mine.

The PPP problem

The haters hated and the jiyalas loved Bilawal’s breakout speech in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh. All very predictable for a partisan show meant to whip up the party base.

But what a missed opportunity.

Bilawal is a kid, part of the very same youth bulge that, for the first time since the lowering of the voting age in 2002, could have an electoral impact.

Imran Khan, in his 60s now, fervently courts youth support. The Sharifs, with hair transplants for Christ’s sake, have tried desperately to politically animate the youth.

And here you have a kid, speaking in heavily accented Urdu and all of that, yes, but still a kid, talking about the politics of martyrdom and handouts and roti, kapra aur makaan, a slogan his grandfather championed 45 years ago.

Sure, you can’t ignore the base ahead of an election, but the poverty of thinking in the PPP brain trust was underlined this week by Bilawal’s speechwriters, who simply rehashed an old message for a new generation of Bhuttos and jiyalas.

It wasn’t just the youth who were ignored. If you happen to live in urban Pakistan, are reasonably well-educated, have a job in the private sector or own a business, what exactly were Bilawal and his speechwriters offering you?

It’s not a new problem. The PPP has long struggled to adapt to the changing demographics of Pakistan, retreating further and further into its rural base in interior Sindh and southern Punjab and the politics of martyrdom in pockets elsewhere. But the party’s messaging problems have accelerated under Zardari’s leadership, partly because Zardari’s primary purpose is power, not the protection of brand PPP.

You can see it in the big leadership changes he’s made this year. Anwar Saifullah in KP, Wattoo in Punjab, a PML-F guy as the new governor: Zardari has farmed out the PPP’s electoral campaign in swathes of the country to party outsiders. If that seems inexplicable on the eve of a general election, it is.

Bilawal may be politically too young to understand what’s happening to him and the party he will inherit twice — once from his mother, a second time from his father — but there will come a day when he will have to rescue his party from his father.

Election time?

Call the election, give us a date, do it now. Everyone is clamouring for Zardari to call the election.

It’s a final ace up Zardari’s sleeve: despite all the legislative disempowering of the presidency, the date of the next general election will be set by Zardari.

So what’s he waiting for?

For one, neither he nor the Sharifs are in a hurry. There’s development money still to be spent, fairy dust to sprinkle over ramshackle constituencies to make people forget the bad and hope for the good. The more weeks there are to lavish money, the more the fairy dust may work.

For another, who else can force Zardari’s hand to dissolve parliament early? Qadri and his millions? The boys? The robes? Never say never, but meaningful pressure has yet to materialise and time is running out.

Third, if there is a fallback plan, as many suspect there is, then why expedite that process?

The fallback plan: Zardari steers the PPP to second-largest-party status in the National Assembly; hangs on to the provincial governments in Sindh and Balochistan; and with control of the Senate already locked in, works the margins to eke out re-election as president, with the federal government in the PML-N’s hands. Cohabitation, Pakistani-style.

But, and Zardari must especially be relishing this, the call on the election is ultimately Zardari’s to make. If circumstances or calculations change, he can pull the trigger on an early election.

For now, though, for all the speculation and chatter, it still looks like it will be a full term, followed by a fairly short election campaign.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm