Nation turns the corner

Ishrat Saleem 

February 18 brought happy news to the nation. The reportedly immaculate rigging plan to give majority or at least plurality of seats to Pakistan Muslim League (Q) at the centre and a reasonable number of seats in the provinces could not be implemented for a number of reasons and the will of the people prevailed. Statements of political parties as well as several news reports suggest that the outgoing ruling party did its utmost to swing the election result in its favour. The list of complaints lodged with the Election Commission before elections numbers 2,166. With negligible interference in the polling process by interest groups on the election day at the national level, the pre-poll engineering could not bear fruit. Although Free and Fair Election Network, a coalition of 30 civil society organisations that monitored the election process, has stressed on the long-term electoral system reform, given the circumstances in which elections were held and our dismal electoral history, 2008 general election could be termed as credible and relatively fair. The results have taken the president and his allies by surprise, who were fully confident of winning. In the humiliating rout, majority of cabinet members and the president of the erstwhile ruling party were defeated in their respective constituencies. These are clear signs of the nation transforming the polity by sheer force of its will. Starting from March 9, incrementally, gradually, the regime has been brought to a juncture where it could no longer resist the ethical onslaught of the public as well as the political opposition. This is in line with the strategy proposed by the late Chairperson Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Benazir Bhutto, who is dearly remembered today. She believed in a peaceful democratic transition and did not opt for the path of confrontation with the incumbent regime. Her son Bilawal Bhutto, now PPP chairperson, vehemently reiterated her stance in his first press conference: “Democracy is the best revenge.” However, the role of the confrontationists (lawyers’ movement, All Parties Democratic Movement) cannot be underestimated in bringing about this transition, which has received the stamp of legitimacy by the people of this nation. This is the first time that the elections saw an issue-based vote. Throughout the struggle for democracy, the role of the public has been very significant. They have voted for the pro-federation, liberal forces in all the provinces and have eased concerns about the integrity of the state. The PPP and the PML (N), both moderate political parties, have received 88 and 66 seats respectively at the centre. Awami National Party (ANP) reclaimed the ground it lost to the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in 2002 and won plurality of votes in NWFP and 10 seats at the Centre. ANP by no means is a secessionist or isolationist party and favours the federation.  In Balochistan, due to boycott of the nationalist parties, PML (Q) and PPP have bagged the highest number of seats respectively. The religio-political MMA suffered a complete reversal of fate by winning only five seats from 65 seats in 2002 parliament. It would be wrong to attribute the vote of the people to the sympathy wave created after the death of Benazir Bhutto, as the apologists of the regime are trying to suggest. This is not the first time that the PPP has won majority in Sindh or, for that matter, in other provinces. Likewise, the result in Punjab clearly shows that it was pro-constitution vote in defiance to the ultra-constitutional forces, which went to PML (N) due to its clear stance on the issue of the restoration of judiciary, trounced on November 3 last year. People have rejected the electoral paradigm instituted by General Ziaul Haq in 1985 by giving development funds to members of legislatures. In an interview to a TV channel when Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain was asked why did he give so little time to election campaign in his constituency, he had replied that his party had done tremendous development work and the people will vote on the strength of that performance. However, they have demonstrated that they can distinguish between the politics of local bodies and national politics. These elections have resolved the pervasive crisis of legitimacy of governance that has marred democratic as well military dispensations since 1977. The regimes from 1985-2008 have lack genuine legitimacy and true conformity with the constitution. Speaking in purist terms, the government formed after 1985 was not a legitimate dispensation because the elections were held on non-party basis and the prime minister was later handpicked by the Zia regime. From 1988 to 1999, the patently democratic governments could, at best, be called quasi-democratic power sharing arrangement between the military and the elected representatives. Several key figures of that time have admitted to having been involved in intrigues and engineering of elections against a certain political party, in which the will of the people had little significance. The entire decade of 1990s is marked with infighting of the two major political parties who would go to any extent to down their rival to the benefit of the ubiquitous ‘establishment’, which fell the elected governments at its will, and the detriment of the political actors, which received the flak for decisions of behind-the-scenes actors. Neither the political leadership nor the system was at the level of maturity and patience where they could rise above their parochial interests and challenge the establishment. For the first time in 30 year are we going to have a government, which has the true mandate of the people. Arguably, relatively free and fair elections were in the institutional interest of the military, which had, of late, received quite some drubbing at the hands of the burgeoning civil society. The future scenario holds hope for the country. Burying all speculations of the parent party taking the PML (Q) in its fold to form the government, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari made the announcement that they will join hands at the centre and the provinces to form government. Earlier, leaders of the PPP and ANP met and agreed upon making coalition at the centre and the NWFP. The joining together of the PPP and PML (N) has excluded the possibility of once again crafting an artificial alliance of disparate elements, which will start teetering at the slightest blow. The agreement of the two sides on issues of the restoration of judiciary, Charter of Democracy, provincial autonomy, revival of the 1973 constitution and extremism is a good omen. Individual statements by leaders of potential coalition partners are also sending out good signal. The other day Asif Ali Zardari expressed his wish for improved relations with India. The new government will assume the reins of power at a time when the economy of the country is in doldrums due to the ill-advised policies of the outgoing government. Rising inflation and energy crisis have falsified tall claims of economic growth. Although the services sector, particularly IT and telecommunications, have expanded, there has hardly been any investment in infrastructure, except in Punjab. The development of Gwadar does not promise to offer the promised benefits due to the explosive nature of the nationalist politics and the refusal to pay heed to the aspirations of the masses in the area. The autonomy of smaller provinces in the federation is another big issue on the plate of the new government. As a sign of hope, Asif Ali Zardari has said that his party is ready to take the militants in Balochistan on board. ANP has also made its demands regarding provincial autonomy known in which the issue of changing the name of the province tops the list. The new government will have to wait for a year for this change to take effect due to opposition majority in Senate. Meanwhile, it would be best to prepare the ground and build consensus. Moreover, the ANP will have to deal with more thorny issues once this matter is resolved. The other most crucial issue is the war on terror and rise of extremism in the country. A legitimate government with a public mandate will be in a far better position to build consensus on the option of military action if it is the only option left with the government to root out terrorism. The immediate issue that swung the elections in PML (N)’s favour is the restoration of judiciary. It may be argued that Nawaz Sharif’s insistence on the restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary has more to do with the removal of President General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf than his commitment to principles. Impeachment of the president requires two third majority which cannot be achieved unless the government has two-third majority in both houses of parliament. With Senate still dominated with Musharraf allies, it will not be possible for the new government to make such a move successful. The other possibility is restoring the 60 odd judges who will then take care of Musharraf’s fate when the law takes its course.   

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