Polls without a general
TODAY, governance in Pakistan can best be described as a parliamentary form of presidency. The National Assembly and the Senate may be its constitutional form; its substance, however, lies under the vaulted roofs of the presidency in Islamabad.
Daily, the political calendar is moving closer to May 16, 2013 — by which the next general election must be held. ‘Must’ though is not a word popular with incumbent prime ministers.
When deciding on anything as uncertain as the date of an election in which they may (or worse still, may not) be returned to power, they prefer to follow their own instincts, or the advice of their confidants, or the results of independent opinion polls. More often than not, it is in doses of all three.
Governments call an election when it suits them, the opposition when the government is at its most vulnerable. That is why, for example, Mian Nawaz Sharif has begun his election campaign with a demand for early polls. It is a sage move, but one that is politically four years too late.
Four years ago, on March 9, 2008, the two major political parties in the country — Zardari’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N — signed an agreement at Bhurban that introduced for the first time in Pakistan’s politics the concept of two contestants voluntarily sharing power. Neither had emerged an absolute victor in the National Assembly, not enough to be in a majority, and too many to be disregarded as a minority.
Had the concept of power-sharing been admitted following, say ,the elections held in December 1970, it could be argued that Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League and Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP could have ruled separately in each wing, yet shared power at the centre of a still united and federated Pakistan.
In 2008, Mr Zardari, as co-chairman of Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP and now Benazir Bhutto’s political legatee knew that the happy optimism glowing from Article Five of the Bhurban Declaration — that “the PML-N would be a part of the federal government while the PPP would be a part of the Punjab government” — would not last.
Its objectives like the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, were too transient and limited. Everyone could see that collaboration against a common foe was being camouflaged as coexistence.
Mr Zardari began his election campaign for the 2013 general election in 2008, while still in Bhurban. He sharpened his strategy later that year when he was elected president. He knew that he had secured 481 votes against the 153 gained by the candidate supported of Mian Nawaz Sharif, but was it a victory he could bank upon? The same fickle Pakistanis had given Gen Musharraf 671 votes in his presidential elections the year before.
Everything that President Zardari has done since he assumed office four years ago has been to ensure that he and the PPP will never be hostage to the electoral process. He intends to participate in it, compete certainly, but only to win. He has no intention of losing.
That is perhaps why every initiative during the past four years has been to nourish a PPP landslide in the next election — whether the inter-provincial NFC award at the macro level, or at the micro-finance level, the Benazir Income Support Programme (a euphemism for a monthly subsidy in a local currency convertible into votes).
Against this strategy, the Sharifs are giving computer laptops to students who have yet to identify their polling centres, and in any case cannot vote electronically on those computers.
The Sharifs have entered the race with too little, too late. In their hearts, they are not entirely convinced that they want to win.
They parted company with the PPP government hoping that it would then be held singularly culpable for the economic fiasco in which the country is mired. That has not happened.
They have yet to kindle sufficient public outrage against power cuts, gas shortages, flight delays, cancelled trains, and outrageous corruption. Pakistan’s citizenry has begun (in Milton’s words) “to love bondage more than liberty/ bondage with ease than strenuous liberty”.
In a perverse sort of way, it may actually prefer to continue with the present band of looters (Supreme Court and NAB revelations notwithstanding), on the premise that they must be satiated. A different batch will simply start at the bottom of the barrel and spend its five years filling it. Whenever the next elections are held, it is a given that they will be contested by all the parties, including Imran Khan’s PTI. He boycotted the last elections and cannot afford to spend another five years in exile.
Unless there is a repetition of Mr Bhutto’s 1977 electoral mismanagement when the PNA representing collectively all his opponents refused to accept the faulty outcome, the results of the next elections will be largely accepted by the parties.
It is not only in the interest of the political parties themselves but also of the establishment — the army, the judiciary, the civil service — that these elections are not only conducted in a credible manner, but are seen to be above suspicion. None of the three alone has the singular, unchallengeable authority to intervene either overtly or even covertly to induce a result.
Against this background, will the next election bring — as some inveterate optimists hope — a permutation of new, unsullied faces into prominence? Or will there be — as some experienced pessimists fear — a recycling of stale, sterile rhetoric? Musharraf believes mistakenly he is the answer. The real answer lies within the ken of the civilian presidency.
Meanwhile, if anyone knows where one can find a chief election commissioner, please call Islamabad. We seem to have misplaced ours and we are running out of time.
The writer served as a minister in the interim Punjab cabinet from November 2007 to April 2008.