The politics of coalition
IT was on Feb 18, 2008, election day itself. Two United States senators — John Kerry and Joe Biden — had come to witness the conduct of the general elections.
Kerry was already a household name in Pakistan, as the joint begetter of the Kerry-Lugar Bill, while Joe Biden looked as if he had no idea that once he returned to the US, he might be selected by Barack Obama as his vice-presidential running mate.
To some cynics, it was entirely appropriate that the vantage point from which they would observe the Pakistani elections should be the lawn of the US consul-general’s house off Zafar Ali Road, Lahore. There, over lunch, they solicited the opinions of
some ministers from the interim provincial cabinet. The view of one of them — in hindsight — was prescient.
These elections, he told them, would be governed by the three Cs. The first C was the conduct of the elections. Unlike previous elections, almost all the parties accepted the conduct of these elections as being fair and as impartial as they could be in such contentious circumstances. The second C was that all the parties would have to learn to live with its consequences, and the third that there would be a government by coalition, as no party was likely to emerge with an unequivocal majority.
India had learned to live with the manacles of governance by coalition; now it would be our turn.
And so it has been for the past four years — a coalition government that has survived not because it was united and strong but because the opposition to it was fragmented and weak.
Anyone trying to analyse the present political conundrum must wonder how many centres of power there are in Pakistan.
Is parliament sovereign, or does it enjoy like every modern sovereign only the power to advise and to consent? The legislative record of parliament over the past four years — constitutional amendments notwithstanding — would suggest that it represents vested interests rather than the interest of the public vested in it.
Does power lie in the barrel of a gun? No longer. The Pakistan Army may regard itself as an alternative government-in-waiting, but that is a perception which is withering by the day.
Does power lie then with the judiciary? Each bench would like to believe that the law, as a former Supreme Court chief justice once asserted, is mightier than the king of kings. It may be so in theory; in practice, though, there is the technicality of being able to enforce one’s judgment. How many divisions, Stalin once asked derisively, does the Pope have?
The inescapable answer is that despite the formality of our parliamentary form of government, in which an elected prime minister is prepared to sacrifice himself to save a unanimously elected president, it is clear where power actually rests.
There is one singular authority and that is in the office of the president. Someone once wrote: ‘In its organisation the state must be established on the principle of personality, starting from the smallest cell and ascending up to the supreme government of the country […]Every man in a position of responsibility will have councillors at his side, but the decision is made by that one individual person alone.’
The man who wrote that made his credo a reality, his Mein Kampf once regarded as an unworkable blueprint became a manual for democratic authoritarianism.
The recent Senate elections have reinforced beyond argument the position of the PPP as the strongest party in the country. But the true test of electoral supremacy will come after the next general elections.
That is when an electorate — semi-literate, sleepless because of loadshedding, footsore because of lack of transport, unwashed because of waterless taps, and jobless because paying jobs are to be found only in Islamabad — will decide whether they want more of the same or the chance (however slim) of something different, hopefully something better.
So far, while every political party is articulate to the point of apoplexy, not one has published anything resembling an election manifesto. Each talks of a youth dividend, without comprehending that these 85 million or so boys and girls will one day, like
chicks, outgrow their charm as electoral pets.
Hardly any party has delineated a policy — for education, for job creation, for income equalisation, for health, for public transport, for taxation, for trade, for commerce, for foreign policy — any policy that would be followed by any of the
innumerable ministries that huddle in Islamabad. The next elections will not be a contest between those who deserve to be in power as much as a deal brokered between those who are prepared to share the spoils of power.
The Indian and more recently the British experience has taught us here that coalitions are the jigsaw of things to come. A pre-requisite for such an arrangement is accommodation.
“It may happen that, from considerations of a purely tactical kind, the supreme command of a movement whose goal is set in the future will enter into coalition with such associations … and may also stand on a common platform with them, but this can only be for a short and limited period of time.”
The caveat against coalitions lies in another sentence: “It must not be forgotten that nothing really great in this world has been achieved through coalitions, but that such achievements have always been due to the triumph of the individual. Successes
achieved through coalitions, owing to the very nature of their source, carry the germs of future disintegration in them from the very start.”
It might not be a bad idea for that paragraph from Hitler’s Mein Kampf to be made mandatory by the Election Commission for inclusion in every party’s manifesto. It might spur them to find on their own common solutions to issues that will plague the
common man for the next five years.
The writer is an author and educationist.