A way out of the present crisis

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PAKISTAN faces a serious constitutional crisis which has been compounded by the problems spawned by extremism and violence that threaten the country’s security, territorial integrity and social cohesion.

On the one hand, there is the question of who should govern the country. In the absence of a stable and generally accepted political system that provides a mechanism for a smooth transition to a new ruler periodically, a political vacuum looms large over the horizon.General Musharraf has exploited the situation cleverly to entrench himself in office even if this required him to distort the Constitution of 1973 beyond recognition and violate it blatantly. On the other hand are the jihadi and fanatic forces who feel they just have to give the final shove to see the country fall in their lap.

They also include the religious parties in the MMA who seemingly differ in their strategy — they have entered the political system — but their ideology and nuanced idioms are, in effect, not very different.

This pushes the so-called pro-democracy and liberal forces such as the PPP, PML -N, ANP, PML-Q, MQM and so forth into making choices that some of them find distasteful. The option of remaining neutral no longer exists now in the aftermath of Lal Masjid and the president’s decision to proceed with his plan to seek re-election in his uniform from the incumbent assemblies.

Some of them, such as the PPP, understandably feel they cannot support the religious parties because they do not subscribe to their ideology or their strategy. But for others, such as the PML-N, the military ruler is the worse evil. He is not a democrat and has shown scant respect for constitutional norms. For that reason, Benazir Bhutto has shied away from giving out the details of her meeting with the general in Abu Dhabi. This has only added to the confusion.

There is yet another element in the political spectrum which is technically the most important but has been largely ignored in policymaking while it receives the loudest mention in political and religious circles. This element is termed the ‘common man’ in political parlance. He is the one who is most affected by the shenanigans of the key actors in politics.

Paradoxically, he is also the least interested in who comes into office and how. Depoliticised over the years by the paralysis of the political parties and his daily grind of earning a living to sustain himself and his family, the common man has despaired of the events in the country to such an extent that he perceives things to be beyond redemption.

He feels he does not stand to gain anything from whoever wins the election. His lack of interest in politics and elections is a matter of grave concern since it has serious implications for the working of democracy. Yet he can hardly be blamed for it.This would explain the confusion you witness today in Pakistan’s politics.

There is confrontation between various sections of opinion. But there are also cross currents running counter to these fault lines.

In this situation of crisis it is being made out that fair and free elections (as the International Crisis Group suggests in its latest report) would resolve all dilemmas. Had it been simply a case of the country being fragmented socially, politically and ethnically, or polarised between the extremists and the moderates, elections would certainly have clarified the picture.

No major problem would have arisen even if any political party had failed to win a clear majority. One of the bigger parties could have entered into a coalition with other groups — after all politics is the art of the impossible and coalitions are formed among the strangest of bedfellows.

The problem is that matters are much more complicated than that. What actually calls for serious thought is whether these alignments and groupings, presuming they will lead to the establishment of a constitutional government, will rid the country of the curse of terrorism and the threat of military intervention in politics again.

Also to be addressed are the hazards of a threatened American attack to destroy Al Qaeda safe havens that are believed to be in our tribal areas. The two issues are interrelated and one feeds on the other. Will elections — even if they are fair and free — resolve these problems?

Besides, the incident of terrorism provides the army with an excuse to stay on at the helm to act as the saviour of the country. If this is conventional wisdom, the army will be reluctant to see President Musharraf go and the possibility of another coup to tighten the army’s grip on the government should not be ruled out.

The only modus operandi one can suggest is that all the parties should negotiate with President Musharraf on the formation of a national government to ensure that all shades of opinion in the country find representation in the policymaking process. A national government could attempt to reach a truce with the jihadis which may not be impossible if the assumption is correct that the high visibility of the army and the Americans is the key provocation for them.

This national government should work towards holding free and fair elections. Even after the elections are held, power should not be handed over to one or two parties that win the most votes. It should result in the constitution of a grand coalition of all parties that should find representation in the proportion in which they have won votes. It should hold office for the normal term of five years.

In this interim period it must set itself some goals. The most significant should be:

— Work out a compact for provincial autonomy;

— Introduce democracy in the working of political parties;

— Trim the size of the army and the defence budget, while bringing it under civil control;

— Adopt a two-pronged approach vis-à-vis the extremists to persuade them to abandon their strategy of terror. Negotiations and force should be resorted to as necessary to isolate the terrorists. Concurrently, the government should focus on the social and economic development of all backward areas;

— Focus on the education sector to empower people economically, politically and socially and widen the worldview of the people;

— Distance ourselves from America not by resorting to confrontationist tactics but through discreet diplomacy. The expected change in the administration in Washington might make this possible.

If we fail to find a political focus in the present chaos, we may soon find it impossible to pull ourselves out of this morass. Ironically, as the power brokers dither in search of a solution, the lot of the common man will continue to be neglected.

True, he himself has abdicated his right to decide his own future by not asserting himself. But can one blame him for that? In the absence of empowerment brought about by education, he has yet to discover his own political strength.