ANALYSIS: Time to rethink —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi - Sunday, October 03, 2010

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The societal groups and the media need to adopt a non-partisan pro-democracy disposition, calling upon all the state institutions and the political class to respect the constitution in theory and practice and no single institution should attempt to overwhelm other institutions

Politics is the art of the possible and democracy requires moderation and accommodation for addressing contentious issues. These cardinal principles of democratic politics help to overcome difficult political situations. Democracy runs into serious problems if any partner in the democratic enterprise develops an aura of self-righteousness or views itself as the sole guardian of the right course of action. As a joint enterprise, all partners have to recognise and respect each other’s position and role and each contributes in its particular way towards strengthening democracy.

The postponement of the hearing of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) implementation case by the Supreme Court on the request of the federal government is a positive development. It has eased tension in the political system and has given time to the main players in the political system to reflect on the political developments over the last one year and how should they address the problems of today and tomorrow.

There are four major players whose disposition and interaction with one another will go a long way to determine social and political developments and the future of democracy in Pakistan. These are the government, the opposition, civil society and the superior judiciary.

The major responsibility for strengthening democracy falls on the shoulders of the government. Here the government does not simply mean the federal government. It also implies the provincial governments that have an enhanced role in the political and economic domain after the passage of the 18th Amendment and the approval of the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award. If Pakistan suffers from poor governance, a large part of this failure has to be shared by the provincial governments, especially the Punjab government, because Punjab is the biggest province so far as population and resources are concerned. Further, its ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is currently focused narrowly on condemning the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led federal government for all the current ills in Pakistan.

The federal government needs to give up the policy of not taking difficult decisions for making administration cost-effective and improving governance for an effective and judicious use of state resources for the betterment of the common people. There is a need to demonstrate by practical measures that it is working towards addressing the socio-economic issues that have become more critical because of the devastation caused by the recent floods.

The majority of the pressure on the federal government will be eased if it can work with the provincial governments for managing the prices of eight to ten products that are meant for daily household use. This needs to be coupled with a better management of electricity load shedding and regularly explaining why the electricity suspension is often erratic, sometimes lasting for several hours. The government needs to be more forthright in explaining the recent petrol shortages.

Somebody, senior bureaucrats or political leaders, has to take responsibility for the sudden short supply of essential commodities and other administrative failures. After all, some people are benefiting from the price hike and periodic shortages.

While recognising that the immunity clause for the president is very clear in stipulating that “no criminal proceedings whatsoever shall be instituted or continued against the president”, others can be asked to seek remedies through the legal procedures. If some such people are holding a political office or bureaucratic positions, they should be asked to give up the office temporarily and face the charges. A good number of political activists of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and others have also benefited from the NRO. They need to be advised to face the cases. The controversy on presidential immunity should not be allowed to block the whole process.

The opposition parties, especially the PML-N, need to rethink about their approach to the current political problems. The major responsibility is on the PML-N, which runs the Punjab government and is the leading opposition party. The PML-N needs to ensure better administration in Punjab by using political channels rather than relying on the chief minister’s favourite bureaucrats.

The paced PML-N confrontation with the federal government and the expressions of public support to the Supreme Court may help achieve their immediate political agenda but it is not going to strengthen the prospects of democracy. It seems that the opposition and the government have returned to the politics of the 1990s when the PML-N and the PPP accused each other of the highest degree of corruption and misgovernment.

Civil society, which seems to have strengthened over the last decade, needs to assert its commitment to democracy. This task cannot be left exclusively to the political class, which is now returning to the polarised and shortsighted politics of the 1990s when they were largely responsible for the failure of the democratic experiment.

The societal groups and the media need to adopt a non-partisan pro-democracy disposition, calling upon all the state institutions and the political class to respect the constitution in theory and practice and no single institution should attempt to overwhelm other institutions. Pakistan needs institutional balance. Television anchors should pause their alarmist disposition and think of staying above partisan propaganda or the ‘messiah’ complex of knowing the final prescription for saving Pakistan and its under-siege democracy.

The superior judiciary is an important state institution and its independence is a prerequisite for realising democratic ideals. However, it alone cannot ensure democracy and good governance. There is a strong impression in the political circles that it has overstretched the judicial boundaries to constrain the role of the elected parliament and the elected executive. There is a need to examine the limits of the suo motu power and the frequency of its use. In politics, perceptions are more important than reality. If the perception in the political circles is that the judiciary is taking a hard line towards the current government, the opposing political leaders would approach the courts more frequently to pursue their partisan agendas. Political issues like the party office of the president and the women’s seats should be left to parliament for final settlement. If the president’s constitutional immunity is disregarded, Pakistan will be the first country in the world whose superior judiciary wants the sitting president to be prosecuted abroad.

There is an urgent need to rethink what is happening in Pakistan. Democracy and political stability cannot be ensured by direct judicial or military intervention in the political and administrative domains. Democracy can be nurtured only by democratic means.

The writer is a political and defence analyst

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