Democracy and politicians

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi
Daily Times

Both the government and the opposition are strong in verbal commitment to democracy but their political discourse and activities are not always helpful to democracy

The current domestic political situation does not promise a secure future for democracy in Pakistan. If anything, the people’s trust in the political institutions and leadership in power is fast eroding, increasing the space for manoeuvre for state-institutions and non-democratic forces.

Pakistan began the current democratic era with a lot of optimism for the future of democracy for understandable reasons. The relatively fair and free general elections in February 2008 brought forward two genuinely popular parties — the PPP and the PML-N. The regional political parties that acquired salience were willing to cooperate with the nationwide political parties.

Twenty months later, the optimism of the earlier days has waned and a large number of political observers are expressing doubts if the present political arrangements at the federal level can stay intact until the second anniversary. The Zardari-Gilani combine may find it extremely difficult to sustain itself without making drastic changes in personnel at the top and policy management.

These threats are not being posed by the Taliban and other extremist Islamic groups. It is ironic that the threat comes primarily from within the political class that is sharply polarised and different political parties and leaders cannot rise above their narrow partisan interests. Both the government and the opposition are strong in verbal commitment to democracy but their political discourse and activities are not always helpful to democracy. The PPP-led government wants to hold on to power on its terms for as long as possible and use state patronage to advance its partisan agenda. The opposition, especially the PML-N, cannot hide its desire to knock out President Asif Ali Zardari from the presidency and force mid-term elections on Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

The PML-N pursues its confrontation with the government in an election campaign style. The general pattern is to pick up a particular issue and launch a massive political offensive in a now-or-never style. The PML-N’s political discourse on the restoration of the Chief Justice after the PML-N Punjab government was replaced with governor’s rule was non-democratic and highly confrontational. Later, the issue of the trial of General Musharraf was taken up. This was replaced with the Kerry-Lugar bill and then the NRO. The opposition to the NRO was based on the hope that its abolition would revive corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari and reopen criminal proceedings against some MQM activists.

The PML-N adopted a highly moral disposition of not condoning corruption through the NRO and maintained that none of its leaders benefited from the NRO. However, the information available on November 12 showed that some PML-N members in Punjab benefitted from the NRO. On the same day the cases were discovered in the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) record going back to the year 2000 that accused Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif of money laundering. Some PML-N leaders have described these charges as political victimisation by NAB. Hopefully, they would now view the NAB cases against the PPP leaders in the same manner.

The political leaders are unable to recognise that their never-ending effort to delegitimise each other undermines the political institutions and processes. The charges they often frame against each other are subsequently used by the military to exclude them from any role in politics.

Another development that adversely affects democracy is the tendency of the opposition to rely more on extra-parliamentary pressures and make only limited use of parliament. For example, the PML-N spearheaded the long march for the restoration of the chief justice but it did not move any resolution or adjournment motion in the National Assembly on this issue. Similarly, its members bitterly criticised the Kerry-Lugar bill (mostly outside parliament) but they never moved a resolution in the National Assembly condemning its provisions or rejecting it altogether.

The main constraint on the capacity of parliament to function as the supreme law-making body and the pivot of power is not necessarily the 17th amendment that enhanced the powers of the president. The constraints are political, which will continue to adversely affect the performance of parliament even if the powers of the president are reduced. The political leaders need to assign primacy to parliament in their political gaming. The National Assembly often faces a quorum problem; its meetings are brief and attendance poor. The National Assembly barely meets the constitutional requirement of minimum working days. The political parties rely more on extra-parliamentary measures, i.e. street protest, press conferences, political talk-shows on private sector television networks, etc, to advance their political agendas.

If the opposition role has not been helpful to democracy, the PPP and its allies have not shown much interest in strengthening the civilian institutions and processes. The political institutions and leaders have lost credibility with the people, mainly because of poor governance and the failure of the government to address their socio-economic problems.

The federal government’s poor management of the key policy issues like the restoration of the chief justice, the sugar crisis, the Kerry-Lugar bill, the NRO, gas load management and two weekly holidays shows that it suffers from poor policy making and management, failure to pre-empt a difficult situation, and a lack of consultation with the stakeholders for policy-making.

The presidency’s constant effort to dominate policymaking and management has exposed the presidency and made it vulnerable to criticism. President Zardari has become more controversial now than was the case when he contested the presidential elections in September 2008.

The presidency appears to rely on the advice of people who have a poor rapport and reputation inside and outside the PPP. The decisions on key issues are taken without paying much attention to the ground political realities. Consequently, the presidency had to backtrack on the restoration of the chief justice and other judges. It was completely out of touch with the domestic political realities when it agreed to the language of some provisions of the Kerry-Lugar bill in the pre-approval stage. The refusal of the coalition partners to support the NRO shows that the presidency did not consult them before sending it to the National Assembly. The unnecessary delay in amending the constitution in the context of the Charter of Democracy has done maximum damage to the credibility of the presidency.

The sugar crisis shows the inability of the presidency and the federal and provincial governments to force the mill owners to bring the sugar to market at a fixed price. The gas load management issue is another example of a self-created problem by not taking the relevant business quarters into confidence.

The opposition and the government need to mend their ways if they want democracy to become viable. Greater responsibility falls on the government, which needs to improve governance relating to the socio-economic problems of the people if it wants to retrieve its credibility at the popular level. The presidency needs to step back from its overstretched role and the prime minister needs to bridge the gap between official rhetoric and performance. The president and the prime minister need to replace some advisers/ministers with people who enjoy better credibility in the PPP and the opposition circles. The political status quo at the federal level has become non-viable.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst