Winds of Change in Pakistan?

The political structure in Pakistan, no stranger to crisis, appears to be bracing for some new ones. Controversy over the role of military in politics and question of Parvez Musharraf’s uniform is heating up. The possible return of Shahbaz Sharif and probably Benazir Bhutto is starting to give jitters to the government. Alignments and re-alignments of political forces, normally indicative of impending change, have begun. It may still be early to talk of a change of political leadership in Pakistan, but signs of movement in that direction are starting to appear.

As if to highlight the present political predicament, a stinging swipe by the European Union Parliament was delivered on the state of democracy in Pakistan. The Parliament, while discussing about closer ties with Pakistan, took serious note of human right failings, the involvement of military in politics and curbs on the freedom of expression. Though the Parliament finally voted to pass the motion of increased cooperation with Pakistan, it also decided to have periodical review of progress of democracy in the country.

There was also criticism of the present state of affairs in Pakistan from another quarter. From President Musharraf himself! While speaking at a recent conference on UN Convention Against Corruption, he acknowledged that certain corrupt elements have been elected, and who are now trying to disrupt the system. He, however, did not identify these elements nor spelled what he intends to do with them.

He was more specific about the state of corruption of the government employees in Pakistan. According to him 10 per cent of the employees were extremely dishonest and another 80 per cent acted according to the circumstances. Given the unbridled culture of corruption in Pakistan it is not difficult to make out which side majority from the second group belongs. This cumulative number is so large that efforts for any meaningful change in the governance would be an outlandish proposition. It also hardly speaks well of the government’s efforts to curb corruption.

Coming back to the changing political landscape in Pakistan, it is quite apparent that for all the talk of ‘sustainable democracy’ the present system, unless changed significantly, does not appear to be very sustainable. A quick look at the present state of affairs would testify to this.

The 1973 constitution, which has remained in abeyance for long periods including after the take over by Musharraf, is now in operation, but in quite a changed shape. Effectively there is a ‘troika’ of power structure; the government headed by a Prime Minister, a President who could dismiss the government and the recently constituted National Security Council (NSC), the extent of whose powers are still matters of conjecture. In this is lost as to who is actually running the show.

The President is still the chief of army staff and as per the deal of amending the constitution, should shed his uniform on December 31, 2004. This aspect is also matter of speculation because there are conflicting signals about the President’s intentions. One thing is, however, quite apparent; the President by not being definitive about his intent is keeping the options open. Many feel that if he still needed his army uniform to manage the affairs of the country then what was the requirement of amending the constitution to increase the power of the President and also for creation of the NSC? At least the constitution could have been spared and there would be one less controversy.

The coalition government of Prime Minster Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali is apparently there to be seen and not rule. The coalition, which has significant numbers of breakaway factions of two parties of ex-prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, has very little ideological affinity or purpose and their survival depends solely on their remaining in power. Thus, most of their efforts are primarily directed towards retention of power to the exclusion of other nation building activities.

The Opposition parties do not present any better picture. The surprise beneficiary of the October 2002 elections, the religious alliance Mutahidda Majlis-i- Amal have yet to decide whether they want to be a government party or an opposition. In fact so far they have shown inclination to remain both. As both of these are mutually conflicting this alliance has very little to show by way of substance on either counts.

Then we have the political parties of ex-prime ministers, or more appropriately what is left of them after the large-scale desertions. The dilemma with both these parties, who still have sufficient numbers in the assemblies, is that their agenda is hinged on activities exclusively directed towards rehabilitation of their respective heads now living in exiles. This subjective approach naturally clouds their ability to focus on the challenges of the present day political situation in the country.

Now in the midst of all this comes the new factor of the possible ‘return of the exiles’. The return of former strongman of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif seems all but certain. Ordinarily this should not be cause of such intense debate and the interest it is generating. After all he is a Pakistani citizen who has decided to return to his homeland. As his return, whenever it takes place, would be in the light of directives of the courts, one is at a loss to understand the panic it is sending through the ranks of the government.

The government appears to be going to ridiculous lengths to stop his entry in the country. What is all this in relation to? If Mr. Sharif were considered guilty of some crime then he would have to face the courts. Nobody would have any grudge if the law took its course. There is, however, a fear of a repeat performance of the type of proceedings, which sentenced Mr. Javed Hashmi, President of Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), for alleged inciting revolt against the military. The secretiveness shown in this trial did not endear the government of fairness of its judicial process.
In case the government is worried about the political implications of his return, than they ought to face it politically. They should not be using the laws of the land to fight political battles. This has not worked in the past and is not likely to work in future, except to create further murkiness in the progress of democracy in the country. From whatever is being done by each party to the present conflicts in Pakistan, it appears that not many lessons have been learnt from the past political debacles. This would make a change in the existing system more or less inevitable. The big question is, change to what?