May 9, 2008

Missing another historic opportunity

Filed under: NEW GOVERNMENT AFTER MARCH 24-2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 4:08 am
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MAY 09, 2008

Friday, May 09, 2008
Shafqat Mahmood

The Israelis say derisively about the Palestinians that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. This is arrogance of power because whatever is put on the table for them is patently unacceptable. However, when it comes to political forces in our country, this clever combination of words fits perfectly. There have been at least three periods in our history when the political class could have established ascendancy in the battle for power in Pakistan. They missed all three.

The first was after independence when the circumstances were favourable for establishing a true democratic order. Our political leaders had public adulation for winning freedom and creating a new state. The military was still trying to find its feet and had not yet linked up with the United States. And, the bureaucracy’s power depended on an inherited colonial state structure that could always be changed. The politicians failed to recognise the enormity of this moment.

They sought no fresh mandate from the people, they dithered over a constitution for nine years and they started to use instrument of state power for political ends. This allowed the initiative to pass from their hands. The military and the bureaucracy, or the ‘salariat’ class according to Hamza Alavi, developed contempt for them and did not think they were worthy of being followed. It was only a matter of time before they would be displaced and it happened in 1958.

The second opportunity came in 1971. The military, which had emerged as the dominant part of a new establishment, was beaten, humiliated and on the defensive. After thirteen years of rule, it had lost half the country and had in the process, suffered the ignominy of a surrender against a loathed enemy. It was also deeply unpopular among the people. More importantly, a political leader had emerged in the country with a vast public following. This had not happened since Mr Jinnah and the freedom movement.

This was an opportunity to build a strong democratic order but Zulfikar Ali Bhutto missed it. He was a brilliant man and perhaps the most visionary leader this country has ever had, but his basic instincts were dictatorial. He helped to create a democratic constitution with consensus in 1973 but then did not follow it. He immediately declared a state of emergency, arrested his opponents and muzzled the press. His period of rule became another dictatorship with a civilian garb. He did indeed control the armed forces as no other civilian then or since has done but he did not understand, despite his vision and education that his real strength lay in a truly functioning democratic order.

Politicians are never protected by state power although they may think that when in office. Their real strength is the power of democratic institutions such as a potent parliament, an independent judiciary, a free media and an active civil society working together to protect democratic freedoms and human rights. Ultimately, a politician’s strength lies in support of the people. Mr Bhutto had this but he thought nothing of parliament or the judiciary and he actively suppressed the media and our nascent civil society. When the chips were down for him, weak civil institutions could not stop another military takeover or his judicial assassination.

The third, and half, opportunity came in 1988. Half because after eleven years of draconian rule by a military dictator, the people were ready for a change but the military was not as weak as it had been in 1971. Its image had suffered a drubbing because of Zia’s misrule but it still had the ability to manipulate the political process. This was a time for politicians to come together and rise above personal differences to fashion a real democratic order. They failed.

They allowed a head of Inter Services Intelligence to cobble together an alliance in the shape of Islami Jamoohri Itehad, which set about the task of destabilising the PPP government. When the IJI got into power, the PPP did the same to it. Throughout the first IJI and PPP governments, it was the intelligence services affiliated to the military that were manipulating the politicians. This internecine conflict continued in the second PPP and PML N governments and ultimately culminated in yet another military takeover in 1999.

On February 18, 2008, another opportunity has presented itself. Ziaul Haq was despised but the amount of revulsion against Pervez Musharraf is in a league of its own. Particularly since March 9 last year, a vast swathe of the population positively hates him. This was reflected in the poll results where the party affiliated with him got a massive thrashing. This was not just a denunciation of the Chaudhrys or the fallout of incumbency, but a direct rejection of Musharraf and whatever he stood for.

This sentiment against Musharraf has also translated into a rejection of military’s interference in politics and given an opportunity again to the political forces to fashion a true democratic order. It can only happen though if they recognise their strength and understand the significance of this moment. All this talk of going slow and taking baby steps is defeatism and a reflection of fear. At this historical moment, there is nothing to be afraid of.

It is also important to recognise that this window of opportunity is small. Six months down the line, enough tough policy decisions would have been taken to take the gloss off the coalition. It would be difficult at that stage to count on the un-stinted support of the people. If democracy has to be strengthened, this is the time to do it. And, what needs to be done is also quite clear. All undemocratic steps taken by Musharraf have to be reversed and the foremost among them is his destruction of the judiciary. The real judiciary of the country must be restored immediately and all PCO judges sacked. This will send a loud and clear message to all future collaborators of the military.

It is also important to get rid of all vestiges of the previous regime and any wired traitors within the parties. It was shameful the way election commission was able to unilaterally extend the date for bye elections. There is no need for an inquiry to determine who had blundered. We know who had and where the orders came from. The purpose was also obvious; to stop Shahbaz Sharif from becoming the chief minister of Punjab and two to allow enough time for the coalition to break up. Will the coalition stand by and let these conspiracies succeed?

This is the time to be bold and take all the necessary steps to establish the supremacy of the democratic institutions. If the coalition splits up on the issue of the judiciary, it will be another historic opportunity missed.


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