Sense of popularly elected government's failure prevails in Pakistan
The sitting government in Pakistan that came into power following the February 18, 2008 elections seems to be failing in resolving the crises facing the country because concentration of powers in the hands of a democratically elected president is proving detrimental to the very essence of a parliamentary form of government. If the country is the worst sufferer of terrorism on the one hand, the coalition government led by the Pakistan People's Party is facing serious problems in running the affairs of the country on the other and it seems that it would not be able to complete its five-year term.
This almost besieged capital city is not only under threat from armed terrorists on the streets, an equally strong epicentre of a political upheaval from within the corridors of powers is also visibly in the making. It is not visible to the naked eye, but to those who meet in concealed drawing rooms, in repulsively decorated lounges of huge official residences, in alleys of offices, green lawns or multi-car driveways, and talk in whispers, fearing that the ears and eyes on walls and chandeliers may betray them.
During the three days I spent in Islamabad, meeting almost everyone who was anyone, in the government or the opposition, decision-makers or those watching the decision makers, there is a nagging fear that the post-elections system was not stable, it was not working, that something is cooking somewhere, that those who are running the show are naive, uninterested, lack vision or do not care. The over-riding sense of failure is that after a free and fair elections a genuinely popular and elected government should have created a tidal wave of trust and confidence, at the domestic and international levels, which would have translated into massive political, economic and moral support for Pakistan.
This would have enabled the new leadership to overthrow the crippled and degenerated system of the past, restored vital institutions of the state and proved that democracy was better than a one man rule of a dictator, however enlightened he may have been. That has not happened despite the fact that the two major parties were in coalition, bound by their own declarations, the charters and agreements they had signed, the promises they had made to the people of Pakistan. Instead, the new political set-up has soon descended into the years-old hit and run, grab and go, mad race for petty political gains, major financial benefits, local and international lucrative jobs.
The macro issues which haunted the nation have either been ignored or there is a feeling that not much time is available to address them, so why waste time and why not make hay when the sun shines.
In my meetings with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousuf Raza Gilani, his opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, many leading politicians, including Mian Nawaz Sharif and almost his entire shadow cabinet, the energetic Imran Khan, senior serving and retired officials, who I will not name but who constantly watch the system from within and without, key media people, leading lawyers and, of course, the man on the street, one common thread of concern is that the Feb 18 elections have brought no change at any level and thus the growing disillusionment is like a gathering storm, which can rock the boat, sooner than many would imagine. The recurring complaint, almost at all levels, is that dictator Musharraf has been replaced by popularly elected Mr Zardari and while the dictator used to rely on his associates in uniform and his loyal bureaucrats and technocrats, there is no such reliance in the new political hierarchy.
Thus all key decisions are taken by the president, and while he has all the good intentions of making Pakistan strong, secure and prosperous, it would be too much to expect that any one single person could do everything, and do it right every time. Mistakes are thus being made and fractures and fault lines within the ruling establishment are becoming clear. At no level in my interactions with all the people named above and those not named, was there any disagreement that the present system was being run as a super-presidential form of government, though the prime minister at times insists that he is running the show and is in total control. Yet a couple of examples will show how this new set-up has not yet stabilised. While there is a lot of talk that Zardari and PM Gilani have started to develop some strains in their relations, though Gilani strongly denies them, it is also a fact that in the middle of one very recent nights, the prime minister sacked the establishment secretary because he had acted on the orders of the president while the PM had issued different orders on the same issue.
It is also a fact, and no one denies it, that the prime minister, known to be a very cool and composed person, recently got in such a rage that he banged an important file into the wall, put up to him for signatures by his principal secretary, because it contained orders to appoint some 6,000 people on government jobs, of which the PM had no knowledge. “Do you want me to go to jail again?” Mr Gilani asked his PSPM almost shouting, a fly on the wall quoted him as saying. The PSPM, who had been appointed apparently without PM’s enthusiastic approval, after he returned from exile in London where he once drove the London cabs for a living, was within days shown the gate out of the PM Secretariat and is now waiting to be posted, or has been posted, at the Asian Development Bank in Manila as Pakistan director.
This may be seen by many as another blow to a smooth working relationship between the two top offices being held by the PPP. Those who know in Islamabad say the PSPM worked hard to please both his immediate bosses, the PM, and also the boss in the presidency who mattered more. The result was that there is a room full of pending files in the PM Secretariat because the PM was unable to take a decision or these files were never put up before him and only such files were put on a fast forward track which had the approval or interest of the man on the hill. Thus a system drag was bound to develop and hurt the PM.
Now politicians who sit in the august halls of parliament do not mince words in saying that almost all levels of PPP leaders speak in whispers about a possible change of the PM. How and when is not clear but when such a whiff of smoke goes around the aisles, there is always some fire burning close by. Interacting with the top leadership of the PPP of Benazir Bhutto gives another kind of jittery feeling. This level of leadership is deeply insecure and confused as all senior leaders say, of course in the strictest of confidence, that the party has been taken over by a few unknowns but close friends of the president, among them his jail mates, his exiled business and entertainment friends and some useful remnants of Gen Pervez Musharraf who provide continuity.
After detailed discussions held recently with almost all these top leaders, it is not difficult to understand that the PPP is in a serious crisis and if sooner or later it had to face the test of any electoral contest, it would face a hands down humiliation by not only PPP supporters elsewhere but even in the heartland of rural Sindh. One small example, probably not related to the PPP, which has gone almost unnoticed on the political scene, was the defeat of PM’s Adviser on Finance, a Citibanker of Shaukat Aziz’s genre, our biggest IMF supporter, Shaukat Tareen, in the Sindh Club of Karachi, where he contested to become its vice-president. A man who cannot win a club election is now in charge of the country’s economy and has embarrassed the elected government by giving options after options and finally settling for the one which he himself declared as the last and the worst.
A senior PPP leader summarised the existing situation in one sentence, while describing the situation prevailing within the PPP: “At times when our co-chairman is in a good mood, he describes many of us as Benazir’s baggage and says so publicly. But in practice power is enjoyed by no one from amongst this precious baggage. It is always in the hands of trusted friends of the president.”
The PPP leaders, who are known to be associates of Benazir and not of Asif Zardari in the past, are still in a state of some shock though the PPP won the election in February and Zardari became the president in Sept this year. They are slowly waking up to the fact that the largest political party of the country has been taken over by a group of people who were never a part of the party’s inner core. They are amazed at the level and quality of politics in the higher echelons of the party and they are worried to death about its long-term implications. The rest of the country’s political leadership, including Mian Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, is deeply disturbed, especially Mr Sharif, because he has a delicate balancing act to perform. If he comes out strongly against what is going on, he fears the forces that always are waiting in the wings may take undue advantage. If he does not oppose what is going on, the damage that is being caused may soon become irreversible and then everyone will be a loser.
Where to draw the line is Sharif’s dilemma but his party is getting restless as time is of the essence, they sincerely believe. The opposition outside parliament is, of course, ready to rock the boat if they have to because they have no stakes. Yet they are ready to go along with the forces within parliament to mount pressure on the government to change its course, mend its unwise worldly ways and start looking at issues from the national perspective.
Many small and big inside stories were narrated to me by many, indicating that all is not well in the state of Denmark. One such story about the abolition of the political wing of the ISI amused me. In lush lawns of the Punjab House in Islamabad, a small fly singing in open air said the PPP had tried to use this political wing to herd together all available members of parliament, minus the PML-N, so that a two-thirds majority was put together and then the PPP could bring in constitutional amendments of its choice and further consolidate its hold on power. But this time the fly sang, the political wing said ‘Thanks, but No Thanks’ and walked away thus making it clear that no longer will such an organisation be used for one party or another.
Another titbit narrated by diplomatic baboos was that in all the world capitals President Zardari tried to get some badly-needed cash, the answer, in so many words, often polite and diplomatic, was the same: “Sir, get into the IMF so that we can trust you.”
One European foreign minister, who visited Islamabad, even said so in public that he had informed the high-ups that the present government cannot be trusted with cash unless they were under some internationally-monitored discipline. These feelings of distrust are strengthened by a number of high-profile cases which are grabbing the media attention but could well end up as storms in a tea cup, after things are settled between officials and alleged criminals. These cases include the famous Khanani and Kalia money scandal, the Diwan group under pressure of selling off the entire group, the Stock Exchange scam in which for three months a stalemate is continuing, the jeweller Kamran Tessori case where some billions are involved, the Sitara group case and many more at lower levels. Another offshoot of Mr Zardari’s visits was an observation by someone who knows.
“Listen,” he said, “Check out why did your Army chief visit almost every capital where Mr Zardari went, or met leaders of that country after the president’s meetings, and ask someone what the Chinese said to your Army chief and what was his answer.” He actually told me the answers but I cannot repeat them as I do not have authentication from the Chinese or the Army. The president and his team, however, have another world view of the current situation. Mr Zardari, according to his close associates, has been running from country to country to get help for Pakistan. He believes the first priority for him was to stop the country from an economic meltdown and defaulting on its international loans and that has been successfully achieved by getting the IMF programme on track, much ahead of many other countries waiting in line for the IMF bailout packages. In fact, the prime minister himself asserts that since the government in Islamabad was aware of the dangers, it had started taking the difficult decisions even before the decision to go to the IMF was taken and this prudent strategy resulted in a quick and safe bailout when Pakistan received the first instalment of the IMF on Thursday.
“Politics come later, first we have to save the country,” a close aide of the president said. “We will handle other issues in an amicable way.”
And about charges of corruption, the presidential camp thinks this is a plethora of allegations which Mr Zardari and his friends have faced for years without anyone proving anything. Yet the powers that matter, in purely physical, military, administrative or political sense, are worried that the present leadership is not proving up to the mark, given the crises the country faces. Change is in everybody’s mind but how and when no one knows. Several scenarios are already being floated. One says there will be no military intervention, come what may, but checks and balances have to be put into the system. That could mean a reshuffle in the top judiciary and many are reading too much in the overwhelmingly impressive treatment deposed chief justice Iftikhar Hussain Chaudhry received in the United States. That scandals about the current chief justice have broken out in the media is totally coincidental but conspiracy theorists would put it in a two plus two context. Another potentially explosive spot is Balochistan where there is a loud talk of dissolution of the provincial assembly, either through judicial intervention or through the political process because there is a strong feeling that unless the nationalist forces are fully involved and integrated, Balochistan would not stabilise.
Prime Minister Gilani, however, believes that there is nothing wrong in that province and nationalists have been involved in the process. Whether the present chief justice survives the current storm or not, his chances of getting another three-year extension appear extremely poor and decision-makers are already thinking of who and what next, when he goes, now or in four months’ time when he retires. Timed with these judicial upheavals, the politicians are planning their own ways of increasing pressure on the PPP. A grand national conference to chalk out a national crisis agenda is being considered by the PML-N. A minus-3 or minus-4 formula is being talked about. Another grand reconciliation effort may be tried. Whatever is being said, heard and thought about in Islamabad, is testimony to the fact that our politicians are failing to meet the challenge that the present window of opportunity has provided them. If they ultimately fail, God help them, and us all.