The leaders of Pakistan's have spent the past week pondering over President Asif Ali Zardari's annual speech to parliament. Some called it the ‘best evidence of a thriving democracy' while others noted that the event was ‘a milestone in Pakistan's history'.
For leaders of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Zardari has made history by becoming his country's first-ever head of state to have addressed the parliament for five consecutive years. In a country whose history has been split between periods of military rule and democracy, this may be unprecedented.
And yet, the simple fact of an elected politician and head of state walking in to parliament for the fifth time, tragically, doesn't say much about the direction that Pakistan has taken under its civilian rulers. In the past four years when Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani governed Pakistan, most of the country's indicators have gone south.
Pakistan's economy is clearly in shambles, the conduct of its ruling politicians leaves much to be desired and those who call themselves democrats have hardly adopted the best traditions of democracy. In this background, Zardari's appearance for his annual speech does not do much to hide his failure to abide by institutions such as the Supreme Court.
The government has repeatedly refused a court order to write to the authorities in Switzerland to re-investigate a case of alleged corruption involving Zardari. This goes back to the 1990s when he was accused of having received kickbacks while his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister.
The defiance of the ruling structure in protecting Zardari is unprecedented in Pakistan's history. Gilani has even gone to the extent to say he would readily accept a six-month jail term — a clear defiance of the court's order. The Supreme Court meanwhile is contemplating contempt of court charges against the prime minister over his refusal to comply with its order on formally requesting the Swiss authorities to reopen Zardari's case. But the prime minister seems to be determined to politicise the matter. Meanwhile, Pakistanis by and large appear to believe that they have been taken for a ride. In the past four years, the country's economic woes have come to haunt its mainstream population. The government has lived on borrowed money and in the process has seen three finance ministers come to the fore. A central bank governor even resigned in the face of consistent pressure to do the needful — matters ranging from the controversial launch of a provincial bank to printing excessive currency notes. Tragically, these are not just matters of high finance. Their consequences have a big impact on the lives of ordinary Pakistanis.
A dismal economic picture has meant that the government has simply failed to tackle critical challenges ranging from sorting out the mess in the electricity grid to consistent gas shortages. While Pakistan's ordinary consumers have regularly protested such matters from time to time, the government has failed to do anything more than paying lip service.
Perhaps the government's only success story may be a relative improvement in Pakistan's security related challenges. When Zardari and Gilani came to power, Pakistan witnessed frequent bomb blasts and suicide attacks. In the four years since, the frequency of such ugly acts may have gone down. The tragedy however is that signs of gain on this front have little to do with the work of Pakistan's democratic rulers. Instead, the success by the country's army in beating back the advance of groups like the Taliban may have contributed much more to this trend. But sustaining this trend may eventually have to do with matters like new legislation, which is again an area where the government has so far miserably failed.
Given this background, Zardari's speech to the parliament clearly remains a non-event. ‘Nashisteen, Guftan, Barkhastan' are three Persian phrases which aptly tell the story of Pakistan's dismal performance. Roughly translated, the phrases mean; counsel, talk and disperse. This is exactly the sorry tale of the disaster in Pakistan today.
Though the country is indeed democratic, its future outlook has never been surrounded by so much doubt. Zardari, Gilani and their cohorts may be Pakistan's democrats but Pakistanis have a right to ask: democracy to what end?
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.