National Consensus


Within hours of the polls closing on Oct 10, a very wrong perception of the early returns, which was indicating that the Muttahida Majlis-I-Amal was sweeping the polls in NWFP and Balochistan, sent alarm bells ringing all over. Analysts took it to mean an overwhelming majority in Punjab and Sindh as well. Within minutes almost every news channel in the world was predicting a “Talibaan” government in the country, attributing this to the “wave” of anti-American feeling “rampaging” through Pakistan. As later results clarified, the” wave” was confined mostly to the western border in areas adjoining Afghanistan. Available statistics and educated analysis thereof reveals a different picture. The vote MMA garnered hardly exceeds what the alliance partners individually obtained in the 1997 Elections. There is certainly anti-American feeling, but that had very little to do with the vote, the core concerns affecting the individual voters were more earthy, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, education, transportation, access to potable water, electricity, gas, etc. An additional worry was the lack of employment, followed by corruption and law and order. Moreover the other major parties were very badly split.

The Awami National Party (ANP) shot itself in the feet in the Frontier by making major mistakes, one was continuing the family control over the Party forcing veterans like Ajmal Khattak to quit, next was the anti-Talibaan Party line on Afghanistan. What really floored them was their electoral alliance with the PPP-P. With historic bad blood at the grassroots level between PPP and ANP, the party faithful had other ideas than the understanding between their leaders. Despite Sherpao’s defection, PPP survived (but only just), the ANP was wiped out.

Fifty years or so after Pakistan’s independence, democracy finally seems to have broken the stranglehold of the tribal leaders of Balochistan. The military option has been tried several times against them with disastrous results for national unity. The Baloch are a fiercely proud people, during military interventions they would rally around their autocratic tribal Sardars despite suffering their excesses. Except for Sardar Ataullah Khan Mengal, most prominent Sardars are not practicing democrats by any stretch of imagination. These tribal chiefs have denied their tenured and hapless following even the basic necessities of existence, education being one of them. They invariably blackmail Federal Govts with their nationalist rallying call. Things are only slightly better in the Pathan belt north of Quetta. In the coastal belt, the influence of the tribal leaders is limited, Mrs Zubeda Jalal has shown this by becoming the first Baloch woman to be directly elected to the National Assembly. Only the lone wolf in his lair, Sardar Akbar Khan Bugti, retained his “Jamhoori” Watan Party (JWP) hold in his tribal fiefdom. The word “democrat” can only be used with Akbar Khan even tongue-in-cheek. The superb civilian administration of honest and effective governance run by incumbent Governor Justice (Retd) Amirul Mulk Mengal has been a major plus point. For the first time in Balochistan (after Lt Gen Sardar FS Khan Lodi) an exercise of merit was a first priority.

Mohammadmian Soomro is a very personable man, but he concentrated on his individual PR and personal political pursuits at the cost of good governance. As expected the PPP got a major number of the seats being contested for the National and Provincial Assemblies but not an absolute majority as claimed by them pre-polls. The MQM showing was disappointing but they were done in by a number of factors, not the least being the manipulation of polling itself on Election Day on a few picked seats. The MMA made good use of their incumbency in Local Bodies (which the MQM had boycotted a year earlier) and got a few seats against the run of the tide. There were some serious electoral deficiencies but since all Parties without exception were involved in this in their own strongholds, one can say it equalized the overall results. What is notable is that the urban-rural divide has narrowed considerably.

Mian Nawaz Sharif had managed to alienate most of the Province’s legislators the second time around (1998) by his failure to emerge from the cocoon of his inner circle (the first time they defected en bloc in 1993). Even the late induction of Shahbaz Sharif as Party Chief (in August 2002) did not help matters. One feels PML (N) were unduly done in by the shenanigans of the local administration, they should have won double the number of seats they finally got (14). The present administration simply followed the anti-Sharif script written in 1993 by PPP’s Chaudhry Altaf Hussain as Governor and the PML’s Mian Manzoor Watoo as the Chief Minister. This time even the hard-core Nawaz loyalists of 1993 joined the defectors pack, Ch Shujaat Hussain and Mian Muhammad Azhar, becoming their leaders. The PML (Q) would have been the majority party anyway, the administration’s intervention only increased the vote tally. Give the PPP credit for staging a strong comeback, Qasim Zia is certainly a major improvement over Jahangir Badr.

The more one studies the results of the 2002 Elections, the more one comes away with a feeling of satisfaction. By giving what amounts to a divided verdict, the Pakistan people having suffered endlessly at the hands of our leaders, have struck back by throwing the gauntlet back at them, either compromise for the sake of the nation or suffer the consequences thereof! The fact that the leaders of all the parties are able to talk to each other without inhibition and without undue recrimination is a huge plus point. In their search for partners to form the government at the Center and in the Provinces, the results should influence all the electoral opponents of Oct 10 to only one conclusion, in the circumstances availing externally and internally, the best possible thing for this country is a transition from a selected national regime to an elected national government. As for the MMA there is nothing better than the responsibility of governance to coal their passion, not only about foreign policy, but a host of issues.

Look at the numbers and the options thereof. In the Center PML (Q) emerged as the largest party on Oct 12 with 76 seats, as opposed to 63 for PPP-P and 45 for MMA. Because of the new rule mandating independents to join a party of their choice within 3 days of the official results being announced, PML (Q) showed reach about a 100 legislators plus in the next few days, not counting the reserved seats for women and minorities. Theoretically they could cross the magic figure of 135 by aligning themselves either with the PPP-P or MMA, both of whom will also gain a few “independents”. Even if PPP-P or MMA coalesce and bring PML (N) into the alliance, they will be still short of the minimum 135. They go over the top only with the MQM, and that too only just. MMA can make the governments in NWFP and Balochistan almost on its own, in the Frontier they will bring in PPP (Sherpao). There could possibly be an uneasy coalition between PPP-P, MQM and MMA in Sindh, but Punjab will have a strong PML (Q) government on its own. Can a weak government in the Center, albeit with three Provincial Governments afford to have a strong government Opposition in the largest Province, and worse a very strong Opposition in the National Assembly?

If PML (Q) decides on a solo ride, with a coalition of smaller parties in the Center and the Punjab government, can they survive for very long as hostage to the smaller parties and with strong Opposition governments in place in NWFP, Balochistan and Sindh? Howsoever one works out permutations and combinations, one comes to only one conclusion, the only option is a government of national consensus. And even better, in arriving at a national consensus, each of the political parties will have to surrender some of their pet hang-ups and search for a common denominator in the national interest. The electorate has ensured that the interests of the political parties must concide with that national interest. Let’s not forget the individual ambitions of the legislators to be part of government. Having stayed out in the cold, the elected representatives need to have access to means to solve the day-to-day problems of those who elected them. In politics there is no altruism, the measure of access for funds is directly proportional to the loyalty given to the ruling Federal regime. Politicians need to be part of the gravy train, to achieve national consensus everyone (and all three of his/her respective blind leaders-in-exile) will have to make compromises.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).