February 14, 2008

A moment of truth

Filed under: ELECTIONS - 2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 4:21 am
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FEBRUARY 14, 2008

February 14, 2008 Thursday Safar 06, 1429

By Tariq Fatemi
THE much-awaited general elections are now at our very doorsteps. And yet, the country appears neither excited about the event nor hopeful of improvement after this important exercise. This is, of course, deeply disappointing, for after all elections are meant to bring about the kind of change that people desire.

What explains the current national malaise that ranges from apathy and resignation to suspicion and distrust? The Election Commission claims that its arrangements for free and fair elections are in place, while the caretaker government is reiterating that it will not permit any disruption of the electoral process. Nevertheless, many political leaders and human rights activists harbour deep doubts and suspicion not only about the conduct of the elections, but more importantly, about the president’s role in the post-election scenario.

Pakistanis recognise that the coming elections may be the most critical in their turbulent history. It could well be their last opportunity to regain lost rights. Some analysts are comparing the current situation to the period prior to the 1970 elections, the results of which were so upsetting to the then military ruler that he chose to plunge the country into civil war, rather than hand over power to elected representatives. The rest, as they say, is history and a painful one at that.

In this atmosphere of deepening gloom and despondency, even government supporters appear to have lost their bravado and are no longer speaking of victory. Some of their luminaries have abandoned the party and sought refuge in the tents of their erstwhile opponents. Others are seeking to avoid identification with their erstwhile leaders. Not surprisingly, the party’s rank and file appears disillusioned.

In fact, the past year has been all downhill for the president and those who had hitched their destinies to his star. Starting with the failed attempt to oust the Chief Justice and culminating in the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto, nothing appears to have gone right for him. Mistakes have been so many that it appears to be the season of follies.

Consequently, the domestic scene has never been as chaotic and confused as it is today. Many of the parties have chosen to stay away from the polls, convinced that ‘hidden hands’ are determined to play games perfected over the years. The two mainstream parties, though participating in the polls, are already crying foul and with good reason. They are deeply sceptical of the intention of the rulers. The former Q League ministers continue to wield enormous influence and even the pretence of neutrality was not observed in the selection of the caretakers.

This has led to widespread fears that the elections may not be free and fair and even if they are, an effort may be made to encourage horse-trading to get the elected representatives to change party loyalties as was witnessed in the aftermath of the 2002 elections. (Notwithstanding this exercise, Zafarullah Jamali was able to scrape through with a single vote). But such an exercise would be playing with fire.

The elected representatives must be allowed to elect the country’s new leader, as well as to engage in the legislation necessary to rid the Constitution of controversial laws, introduced by military rulers. It is the parliamentary nature of our Constitution which is the cementing factor in safeguarding the federation. In fact, the next parliament must endeavour to meet the demands of the minority provinces and accept the degree of provincial autonomy repeatedly promised to them.

It is not only the frightening collapse of state institutions but also the much hyped economic ‘miracle’ that has turned out to be a mirage, as all such flights of fancy are. These have not only left the people deeply disillusioned and angry, the international community too is concerned about Pakistan’s current travails. The two most worrying factors are Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons and its perceived role as the ‘epicentre of global terrorism’.

To this must be added the absence of democracy, even though this is used by foreign governments only when it serves their purpose. This was evident in the Indian national security advisor’s recent remark that India faces threats from countries that are ‘authoritarian, anti-democratic and anti-secular’. He added, for good measure, his concern over risks from nuclear weapons in the hands of ‘volatile states’.

It is somewhat ironic that though Pakistan has contributed more than any country to the global war on terror and, in the process, suffered grievously, there is no end to the demand to ‘do more’. This unceasing pressure has intensified in recent times, causing the government considerable embarrassment and unease.

In one of its issues last October, the weekly Newsweek called Pakistan ‘the world’s most dangerous place’. And in its first issue of the year, the Economist had a picture of a ticking bomb on its cover, while its lead story spoke of Pakistan in apocalyptic terms. Only a few days ago, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates reiterated that the presence of extremists in Pakistan was not just a ‘nuisance’, but a potential ‘threat to their government’.

It seems that irrespective of what we do, the West is not satisfied. At the same time, military operations in the border areas have created a groundswell of anger and alienation against the government’s policies, leading many Pakistanis to view this campaign as inimical to the national interest. This is deeply regrettable because while one may not agree with the US approach, it needs to be recognised that extremism is a scourge to be combated forcefully. Nevertheless, our open-ended commitment to the American agenda threatens to tear the country apart.

For the past year, Pakistan has been going through a crisis of legitimacy that threatens not only its institutions but the state itself. An unprecedented polarisation has afflicted the entire body politic of the country. Deep differences have emerged among individuals, groups and organisations that could tear apart the fabric of the state.

It is now time for compromise, compassion and tolerance wherein the slights and insults of the past are no longer nursed to wreck the nation, but become a balm to heal wounds. The challenge is to ensure that Benazir Bhutto’s supreme sacrifice is not allowed to go to waste, nor Nawaz Sharif’s strong and principled leadership lost sight of. In fact, his pledge to restore the judiciary has in it the seeds of genuine redemption that could restore the faith of citizens and resurrect the dreams of our founding fathers. The forthcoming elections are surely a moment of truth for us all.


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