The past year under democracy has not been a pleasant experience for the common Pakistani. He may further lose his hope and trust in democracy if the two parties remain polarised and return to confrontational politics
It is not for the first time that the PPP and the PMLN have clashed with each other. Their confrontation a decade ago undermined democracy and destabilised the country leading to weakened trust of the public in the political leadership and democracy.
While it was not their intention to pave the way for a military takeover in 1999 that is exactly what they did by damaging their image and the image of democratic politics. The political groundswell existed when Pervez Musharraf captured power and a good part of society including sections of the PPP and the PMLN accepted this change as a relief from the unstable political conditions of the country.
This confrontation is not that surprising if one understands the feudal overtones of our political culture. Two principles lie at the foundations of our political system and practices — winner takes all and unrestrained executive power. It is for these reasons that we have never seen elected governments formed by two or more parties exist peacefully and complete tenures at the centre or the provinces.
Many in Pakistan thought that what had happened in the 1990s was now history and that now we were being led by born again ‘democratic’ politicians who had suffered enough pain in prisons and in exile. There were several reasons why expectations of our political leadership were running unrealistically high after the February 2008 elections.
First the country had experienced a sustained spell of protests by the lawyers and civil society groups in support of the superior court judges deposed by Musharraf in November 2007. The change witnessed about a year ago would not have been possible without this movement for democracy.
Second the Charter of Democracy negotiated with sustained vigour by the leaders of the two parties in 2006 furthered the positive perception that they would run the country according to certain norms and would not go back to the pull down politics of the so called democratic decade. While this was happening on the open political front one of the two or maybe both was negotiating secret deals with Musharraf. That itself was a big step back towards the politics of old as parties tried to position themselves in the most advantageous position with a controlled democratic transition in sight.
Third we have lived with the illusion that democracy the serves interests of those that play by its rules norms and institutions. Ideally it does serve all in the end. Unfortunately the idea of democracy is not philosophically rooted in the feudalistic cultural climate of the country. Nor is civil society strong and organised enough despite its rapid growth to force the ruling political classes to think and act democratically and in the larger public interest.
Unfortunately the concept of democracy among the leaders of political parties is not a measure of political ideology rather it is a political convenience to justify one’s misrule or the party boss’ orders.
If that is the level of commitment to democracy then naturally the party bosses will play power games as they have in the past. Ironically the power game is played on grounds of principles public interest democracy and morality. Without these “moral” horses the no holds barred political polo matches will not be fixed.
It is our desire and earnest hope that the PPP and the PMLN pull their horses back and cancel the match with the resolve to not return to such politics in the future. One cannot rule out a last minute deal between the two sides which common friends from within and outside have been trying to broker. But hope of reaching a compromise is fast fading as we get closer to the eventful month of March.
It is not difficult to predict the fate of the PMLN led government in the Punjab if party leaders go beyond the symbolic “principled” support for the lawyers’ Long March. If that happens there will be a realignment of parties power groups and influential leaders within the Punjab and at the centre.
The bigger question then is if the Punjab will be governable with the PMLN the majority party out of power and out on the streets with the regular agitators. Most of the country today is ungovernable with the borderlands in a state of war that may extend to the heartland of the Punjab. There are signs that this is already happening.
The confrontation between the PPP and the PMLN may take place in a very different context as compared to the 1990s. As a nation we face multiple threats and the troubled legacy of the Musharraf years.
The Taliban are challenging the state stretching the security apparatus. Subversive activities kidnappings and targeted murders have increased manifold especially in Balochistan where a section of Baloch nationalists have taken up arms. The lawyers civil society and some political parties that boycotted the elections continue to agitate in support of the rule of law and an independent judiciary. Their planned Long March and dharna (sit in) may plunge the country into a serious political crisis.
Many of these situations may have improved if the two major parties had honoured their commitments and lived up to popular though exaggerated expectations. But politics in Pakistan is determined by different elements of the political culture and the value system of the country often it is self interest and its packaging as the national interest that determine the choices of the political leadership.
If the two party bosses President Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif fail to reach an understanding they may cause irreparable damage to the cause of democracy. The past year under democracy has not been a pleasant experience for the common Pakistani. He may further lose his hope and trust in democracy if the two parties remain polarised and return to confrontational politics.
Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State War Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.