February 20, 2008

The people have spoken

Filed under: POST-ELECTIONS 2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 4:42 am
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FEBRUARY 20, 2008


Wednesday, February 20, 2008
President Pervez Musharraf and the leaders of the successful political parties, Asif Ali Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif, now have new ground realities and new challenges to face after the people of Pakistan have spoken in a resounding manner. They have spoken in favour of democracy, of peace, of law and order and have emphatically given a stinging rebuke to the forces of extremism and obscurantism in the country and beyond. The voters have very wisely and peacefully, almost in a silent revolution, comprehensively rejected the old power structure with all its perversities and this is the new reality which a bruised and shattered presidency will have to accept. February 18, 2008, will be remembered in the country’s history as the day that the people of the nation were allowed to speak with their real voice. It also is incontrovertible proof that contrary to what the naysayers, the collaborators and the usurpers desire, democracy is what Pakistan desperately needs � because that is the only way that a revolution such as the one that has taken place can occur and rid the nation from things that are bad for its health.

Prior to the election, and on the day of polling as well, the president had said that he would accept the results and work with whoever emerged as the winner. The onus is now on him to ensure that he carries out this pledge � of course assuming that the PPP and the PML-N would be willing to work with him. In his first press conference after the election, PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif was asked about the future of the president. His response was not the impeachment option, but rather that first the pre-Nov 3 judiciary needed to be restored and that it would then decide on whether his election as president was constitutional.

The mandate of the people, of course, is against the president, and with all his men and horses beaten and more or less humiliated it will amount to a massive change of course for him to eat humble pie and work in accordance with the wishes of all those who were until yesterday the target of his scorn and contempt. His former allies, who have been battered out of their wits in the public backlash, have shown the grace to concede defeat. However, it could be just as easily argued that the PML-Q was in fact never a political party with a programme of its own. Rather, it consisted of individuals who had been lured (a euphemism indeed) to form an entity whose primary aim was to sustain the presidency of General Musharraf. Hence, it is quite likely that most of the PML-Q winners will disappear into the fold of the PML-N or any other party in power under the garb of becoming the new ‘patriots’. This means that the president will find himself without any political party clearly supporting him. His old constituency, the Pakistan Army, had already distanced itself from the electoral process and a tactful handling of the situation by General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani contributed immensely to the holding of a free and fair election. Once the army had backed out, it was a strong message for the rest of the establishment to stay away from the so-called “script”, if there was one, and that helped in keeping the process transparent. There are some who are saying that credit for a free and fair election should go to the president, but the reality is that credit, if it must indeed go to any general, should go to General Kayani. Besides, the presence of high-profile western politicians and election observers, a media that was bent on, despite threats and what not, carrying out its professional responsibility and fear of a public backlash in case of rigging, all helped to make a difference. Now an isolated President Musharraf has to act like a real father figure to carry the process forward and take it to its logical end. This is his new challenge. If he can rise to the occasion, he may still be able to earn some respect and then exit with dignity and grace.

As for the winners, particularly Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif (and to some extent Asfandyar Wali � for his party’s brilliant resurgence in NWFP), the challenges are more daunting. Firstly the PPP and PML-N have to develop a working relationship quickly, based on the new realities. The two parties have been in constant contact and coordinating most of their political moves ever since the watershed Charter of Democracy was signed, although at times their relations looked like going through turbulent waters. Mr Sharif has played the role of a mature and senior partner in this relationship during the crisis caused by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Mr Zardari has reciprocated admirably and both the leaders appear comfortable with each other. They have been discussing joint strategies and options under various scenarios, including the one in which massive rigging may have deprived them of their genuine victories. That has, luckily, not happened. Now they are confronted with the Hydras of extremism, terrorism, a terrible law and order situation, inflation, corruption and so on. They also have specific issues of restoration of the deposed judges, independence of the judiciary and the media and the repeated mangling of the constitution.

The issue of restoration of the superior judiciary may well have the potential of leading to a rocky relationship, but then that is precisely what politics is all about � the art of the possible, of reaching a compromise and a middle ground where none may exist. Mr Zardari has said that the new parliament should decide on this whereas Mr Sharif has said that it should be done immediately (in his press conference on Tuesday, he said that all lawyers and judges should be freed immediately). So this is one matter that they will have to, sooner rather than later, find a workable resolution. Mr Zardari is on record having repeatedly said that he would prefer a national government, even if his party became the single largest party in parliament. This spirit has to be maintained and a political culture of tolerance and trust has to be created and sustained to keep extra-constitutional interventions at an arms distance from the political scene. The transition towards a stable and effective administration thus has to be smooth and quick, and if the president does not create hurdles he could possibly succeed in remaining as a kind of a father figure. Such a transition would also create a healthy precedent and reassure many of our western allies, some of whom must be quite nervous, about Pakistan’s role in the war against terrorism.

It has to be said that the war against extremism is very much in Pakistan’s own interest and it would be tragic if this was lost sight of by the victors of Feb 18. The verdict of the people against religious parties in NWFP in favour of liberal and moderate forces could thus become the springboard to launch new political initiatives to bring FATA into the political mainstream. One also hopes that the new government will not involve itself in appeasing extremist elements, like the one before it often did. Faced with such complex challenges, all the sides have to take one step back, think hard about the best option the country should adopt, keep freedom and discussion open and formulate a national consensus to move forward. The people of Pakistan have reposed their trust in their elected representatives and the latter must now rise up to the occasion.


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