ANALYSIS: Political stability —Anwar Syed - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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The poor state of law and order and the resulting insecurity of the citizen’s life and property are believed to have resulted from the government’s corruption, incompetence, and its indifference to the rule of law. We need political change if these deprivations are to be remedied

Political stability may be taken to mean that those who make public policy remain in office for periods that are long enough to give the parties concerned the good feeling that the substance and direction of policy will remain constant, and that they will not undergo abrupt and arbitrary changes. In the absence of this assurance, they cannot plan their lives and work. Pakistan is often said to have suffered instability during its first parliamentary regime (1947-58) in that seven men held the office of prime minister during these 11 years, and one of them (I I Chundrigar) for no more than a couple of weeks. This assertion will bear a corrective. Several individuals remained ministers from one cabinet to the next. The higher civil servants, who advised on policy issues and indeed settled them, remained in their posts even as prime ministers came and went. It may be noted also that in the private domain, policy is made by entrepreneurs or their agents.

If instability implies rapid and frequent changes at the helm, none of the post-1958 regimes presided over successively by Ayub Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, General Ziaul Haq, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and General Pervez Musharraf can be said to have been unstable. The same holds for the present government headed by Asif Ali Zardari. In each of these cases, the regime should have been able to make the policies it preferred. Stability and instability can also be gauged in terms of the public esteem in which a government is held. The state of public reaction to a regime has a strong bearing on the extent to which its policies can be implemented. They will be hard to carry out of if the government making them stands low in public rating. Ayub Khan lost popularity when he imposed a constitution of his own choice upon the country in 1962. It fell precipitously after he returned empty handed from the Tashkent peace conference in January 1966; he had signed an agreement that required the Indian and Pakistani armies merely to return to the status quo ante bellum, that is, the positions they had occupied before September 6, 1965.

Bhutto’s support by his followers, and the opposition to him by his detractors, remained fairly constant during his rule, but it suffered a decline in March 1977 when the election he held was believed to have been rigged on a large scale. The Islamic parties and some other conservative elements in the country cooperated with General Ziaul Haq, but it would not be wrong to say that the majority of the people disliked his policies and style of governance. Benazir Bhutto in both of her terms as prime minister, and Nawaz Sharif in one of them, was dismissed by two different presidents on charges of incompetence and corruption. General Pervez Musharraf’s standing, such as he did have, declined after his assaults on the judiciary in 2007. The present government is held in ridicule for the same two reasons, namely, massive corruption and incompetence. In sum, if stability were to be measured in terms of the trust and confidence in which the public holds a government, Pakistan would seem rarely to have had it.

Stability has to admit of change if it is not to be an agent of stagnation. Change should be gradual and incremental if it is to be absorbed by society. We are all for change if it is wholesome and the improving kind. But we may not agree on the meaning and content of improvement and where it is to be found. Some of its proponents may want to take us back to a golden age, which they will locate in antiquity or the medieval ages. Others may place it closer to modernity, including industrialisation, urbanisation, and the spread of science and technology.

We have been hearing often enough that the people of Pakistan are sick and tired of the present state of affairs, and that they want change. Many observers believe that change is inevitable. Mr Altaf Hussain, head of the MQM, has been telling us for weeks that a revolution is on the way. In popular perception, a revolution is a desirable turn of events. The history of revolutions will not support this perception. Brought about by the people themselves, revolutions cause death and destruction and leave chaos in their wake. They produce the same consequences even when they are planned and carried out by men who had a vision of where they wanted to go. They had assumed the presence of ground realities, which did not in fact exist. They killed and pillaged to remove the realities that blocked their way. As a result, most of the revolutions failed to achieve most of their objectives. Mr Altaf Hussain’s revolution will seek to do away with feudalism and capitalism. It is hard to see who will bring it about, and there can be little doubt that the campaign to introduce it will be accompanied by a lot of bloodshed, without any assurance of success.

What kind of change may we expect to surface in Pakistan? The poor state of law and order and the resulting insecurity of the citizen’s life and property are believed to have resulted from the government’s corruption, incompetence, and its indifference to the rule of law. We need political change if these deprivations are to be remedied. The PPP, which has been ruling at the Centre with the assistance of its allies, has fallen into unspeakable disrepute. It is not likely to return as the largest party in the National Assembly after the next election. If that anticipation turns out to be correct, a major political change will have taken place. Nor is it likely that any other party will command a majority in parliament. The largest party will probably have to recruit allies to put together a ruling coalition. Will we then have political stability?

Generally speaking, coalitions are somewhat less vigorous and decisive than a single party government. They may or may not be as corrupt and incompetent as the present government in Pakistan is. If it is the latter, they may then be fairly well received by the generality of the people.

The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics. He can be reached at

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