Pakistan sighed with relief at the formation of the PPP-led four-party coalition government amidst fears that the presidency’s intrigues could succeed in breaking-up the PPP-PML shindig. Our despondent soothsayers now insist on giving the PPP-PML duo no more than a few weeks before they fall apart over the restoration of the judges. One hopes that cynics end up eating their words yet again, and the PPP-PML marriage lasts a bit, as this bodes well not only for the country but also for both parties. In our current political milieu the distinction between objective analysis and wishful thinking is indeed clouded. But the desire to see the PPP-PML partnership survive the establishment’s mischief is rooted in the fact that this coalition is a product of Pakistan’s intrinsic democratic needs and realities, and must be fortified.
The present coalition government has been formed not in the absence of contrary wishes and efforts of the presidency and our foreign friends, but despite them. Only a few months back General Musharraf and his patrons in Washington were busy cooking up a coalition of the willing to continue his rule, but with a quasi-democratic facade. The idea was to orchestrate an alliance between “moderate” forces in the country to press forward the national agenda single-handedly forged by the general, especially vis-୶is the US war on terror. Such a “dream team” led by the general was to include the PPP, the ANP and the MQM, together with the King’s League. Had the design succeeded, it would have been a disaster of gigantic proportions for multiple reasons ? not only for Pakistan, but also for medium- to long-term Pakistan-US relations.
First of all, like all moderate nations, Pakistan’s majority falls at the centre of the ideological spectrum. At a time of significant international turmoil due to the war on terror and the level of distrust within the Muslim world, contriving a leftist government in Pakistan would have polarised the nation further. It would have pushed the centre-right PML-N further right towards the religious parties. Come the next elections, the pendulum of state power would have swung in the other direction, with the PML-N and the religious parties firmly committed to a more rightwing and openly anti-US agenda. Second, the political decisions reached by such a leftist alliance would neither have been consensual nor effectively enforceable. For, as an implementation arm with a representative face, a leftist government beholden to the general could possibly fare no better than the general’s own all-powerful government of the last eight years.
And finally, a west-sponsored leftist political alliance would have been psychologically disempowering for this nation. It would have strengthened the conspiratorial view that the establishment, together with our foreign masters, continues to hold the sovereignty of the people of Pakistan hostage. And in this regard the present coalition led by centre-left and centre-right mainstream parties is the best thing that could have happened to Pakistani politics. It is irrelevant that all members of the US envisioned dream-team are now also a part of this coalition (with the recent inclusion of the MQM) because (1) the terms of reference of this coalition are indigenous and not dictated by the establishment or Washington, and (2) it includes the PML-N, which will ensure a centrist balance of such a coalition.
The street wisdom of the day suggests that a PPP-PML-N alliance is unnatural and its future bleak. The argument is that (1) these parties are archrivals and the next electoral contest will also be between them, and (2) they will either part if the judges are not restored, or, once the judges are restored and the president removed, the PML-N will have no reason to remain in government any further. But such simplistic logic does not hold if one delves deeper. Let us return to the fault lines threatening our polity: the civil-military divide, the extremist-moderate divide and the centre-province divide. The reality is that neither a PPP government nor a PML-N government can by itself make progress vis-୶is these divides.
The institutional imbalance between the civilian democratic institutions and the military — the bane of democracy and constitutionalism in Pakistan — cannot be fixed so long as mainstream parties are engaged in vicious confrontationist politics. If democracy is to be strengthened and the military kept out of the political fray, as agreed in the charter of democracy, the mainstream political parties need to forge a united front. Both the PPP and the PML-N have suffered due to the military’s kingmaker role. Before returning to competitive politics they must ensure a level playing field where neither party is tempted to use khaki crutches for political aggrandisement. So if the PML-N decides to quit the government once its immediate goals are achieved, it would be imprudently regarding only sheep as its competitors while not thinking of the wolf that endangers the entire herd.
Also, in devising an effective policy and strategy to confront extremists and suicide terrorists in Pakistan, there exist no perfect solutions. Difficult decision will have to be made based on political compromises and ground realities. Unless all political forces and stakeholders consensually settle upon a policy to fight extremism and a strategy on how to implement such a policy, neither will the policy be uncontroversial nor its implementation effective. It will be all too easy for any mainstream force left out of the loop to poke holes in the policy for partisan political gain. Further, if they are sagacious enough, both the PPP and the PML-N will realise that they also need to stay together for purposes of party reconstruction.
The PPP needs to re-establish itself in Punjab, without which it is not possible to run an effective government at the centre. And the PML-N has once again been reduced to a Punjabi party, with pockets of support in the NWFP and Balochistan. Just as the PPP’s choice of ministerial portfolios highlights its focus on the need to reconstruct its support base in Punjab, the PML-N needs to utilise its share of public authority in the centre to build itself up within the smaller federating units. And such a reconstruction will take time. Thus, if the PPP-PML-N leadership wishes to institute lasting pro-democracy structural changes in the polity, as opposed to going back to the era of electoral musical chairs of the ’90s that ended up discrediting representative politics itself, they need to conscientiously invest in their alliance.
Let the coalition government create a level playing political field, so that from here on neither party is completely routed when caught at the wrong side of the establishment. And then, with the rule of law upheld, an independent judiciary in place, a sovereignty of parliament entrenched, and broad bipartisan consensus existing on how to erase the fundamental fault lines threatening the polity, we can return to fair yet competitive partisan politics. During this critical phase of restoring democracy and constitutionalism, the coalition partners must keep the deal-making mindset and political wheeler-dealers at bay.
Apart from the few controversial advisers appointed by the PPP, the cabinet choices have been praiseworthy and logical. Almost a decade of opposition politics had separated the wheat from the chaff. Many erstwhile top-tier leaders of the PPP and PML-N had blown along in the direction of the wind like opportunists always do. Consequently, there were no questions about the political integrity and loyalty of those who had braved the general’s intimidation. The federal cabinet is a bipartisan talent pool as it includes the most competent people of integrity our representative politics has to offer at the moment. But the parties must remember that while integrity, common sense and loyalty are the more required traits among those capable of holding cabinet positions, competence and independence along with integrity are the virtues to be sought among top bureaucrats.
A desirable bureaucrat is one who can highlight sensible policy choices for the decision-makers, assemble effective strategies and get them implemented ? indeed, a rare combination these days. And to that end our democratically elected decision-makers need sensible thinking heads, and not yes-men. Prudent policies and effective implementation are two mandatory ingredients of good governance, which cannot be ensured unless considerations of merit trump those of loyalty. The federal cabinet should borrow a page from Shahbaz Sharif’s success story in Punjab. He made the Punjab government a sponge for bureaucratic talent by refusing to surround himself by sycophants, by encouraging dissenting opinions, and, finally, by infusing his team with the discipline to implement policies.
If the PPP checks its urge to dole out public office to loyalists with thoroughly tainted public image and the coalition government makes senior bureaucratic appointments on merit, the new federal government could indeed become a dream team.
Babar Sattar, a lawyer based in Islamabad, LL.M from Harvard Law School and a Rhodes scholar
Published in The News on April 05, 2008