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Home > India > News > Columnists > Sushant Sareen

Pakistan's democracy faces its biggest test

March 07, 2008

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After the euphoria of 'revenge of democracy', the Pakistani political establishment is coming to grips with the fact that the verdict of the February 18 general elections in Pakistan is more than anything else, a test of democracy.

It is a test of the faith that the Pakistani people have placed -- perhaps for the last time -- in the political class' ability to close ranks and address the fundamental constitutional, political, social, economic, institutional, security and diplomatic challenges that Pakistan faces. If the politicians fail this test, Pakistan will face such extreme turbulence that it could easily unravel the state.

On the other hand, if they are able to find, if not entirely at least in large measure, solutions to the multiple but interlinked crises that Pakistan faces, then Pakistan could just as easily catapult into the league of the most 'happening' countries of the world.

Clearly, even though political pundits and pre-poll opinion surveys had correctly predicted the result, the projected winners never really expected that the regime would allow such an outcome. They were so sure that the polls will be rigged that, rather than prepare for walking the corridors of power, they were bracing themselves for fighting on the streets of Pakistan. Not surprisingly, there was no homework done on how they would form and run the next government if they got the numbers.

The pious declarations on the need for a national government by the two biggest political parties -- the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz -- were more in the nature of electoral grandstanding and were never seriously thought through, much less worked upon.

Now, however, to ensure effective and stable functioning of the new government, the political parties will need to carefully thrash out the formula and modalities of government formation both at the centre and in the provinces, agree on an agenda for economic, political and social reconciliation and rejuvenation, and forge a national consensus on the policy framework to be adopted on constitutional and security issues.

Obviously, this is a monumental exercise, one that will involve a lot of political compromise, flexibility and sacrifice by all the parties in the coalition. Not only will the partners in the coalition have to contend with the pulls and pressures that are inherent in a coalition comprising diverse ideologies, interests and programs, but they will have to do this knowing fully well that they could well be facing off each other in elections in not too distant a future. Adding to the problems of the coalition partners will be party workers and supporters who are still not completely reconciled to the idea of cooperating with their political rivals even as they compete with them to increase their political support base.

Despite all the difficulties of co-habitation, the politicians know that they simply cannot afford to fail in forming and successfully running a coalition. So far at least the politicians have made all the right moves and noises. But the remarkable spirit of accommodation that the top party leadership of PPP, PML-N and the Awami National Party has shown for each others concerns will have to be carried forward when they start grappling with the very tough political, economic and diplomatic problems that confront Pakistan.

It will be politically impossible for the next government to take the difficult decisions that await it unless all the partners equally share the responsibility and the flak that will follow. This is probably the reason why the PPP is insisting that PML-N participates in government rather than doing back-seating driving by giving 'outside' support. Perhaps their common struggle against the quasi-military regime as well as the political compulsions imposed on them by the mandate they have received from the people will help them paper over the problems of blurring of political identity of individual parties in the coalition.

In a sense, the overwhelming rejection of President Pervez Musharraf's [Images] political flunkies by the Pakistani voter has made the job of coalition formation easy by not leaving the winners with any wriggle room on choosing their coalition partners. While the PML-N has always been very emphatic about not jumping into bed with Musharraf's allies like the PML-Quaid and Muttahida Quami Movement, the PPP too is realising that it would be committing political suicide if it forms a coalition with the PML-Q. Not only will the PPP have to contend with public outrage, it will also face the real prospect of the party splitting right down the middle. The PPP leadership is quite aware that just like an unholy political arrangement with PML-Q is no longer an option, a working relationship with President Musharraf is also not going to be possible for any length of time if they are genuinely serious about making Parliament supreme, strengthening institutions like the judiciary, and restoring the Constitution to its original form and structure.

With Musharraf as President, the politicians know that they will face stiff resistance as they go about their task of stripping the presidency of its powers and undoing all the distortions that Musharraf has imposed on Pakistan's constitutional and political structure. Unless Musharraf reconciles to being reduced to a lame-duck President, chances are that all sorts of intrigues and conspiracies will be hatched in the presidency to destabilise the government and put obstacles in its path. If the next government has to have a half decent chance of fulfilling its mandate, then it will have to remove Musharraf and do this soon because if he manages to survive for a few months then it will be extremely difficult to dislodge him from power.

Already the disinformation departments have become active in trying to drive a wedge between the PPP and the PML-N. For the moment, however, this tactic hasn't worked because the political leadership was expecting this to happen and had formed a committee to dispel all rumors floating around. Another desperate ploy was reopening corruption cases against Asif Zardari to browbeat him into submission. But Musharraf and his minions only ended up stiffening Zardari's back. After all, why should a man, who has spent eight longs years in prison without bending or bowing even as the entire Pakistani establishment was working overtime trying to prove the cases against him, succumb now to their threats and blandishments when his party is about to form the next government?

While attempts by Musharraf and his underlings to stay on in power are understandable, what boggles the mind is the American desire to see Musharraf survive by putting pressure on the PPP leadership and on Nawaz Sharif to accept Musharraf. Quite clearly the Americans have failed to comprehend the changed political ground realities in Pakistan which have made Musharraf superfluous in the entire scheme of things. For the US Musharraf's continuation in power makes sense only if he continues to call the shots, for which he needs to have all those powers that he arrogated during his dictatorship. This is something that the politicians will not permit.

On the other hand, if Musharraf is reduced to a mere figurehead, powerless to dictate the policy of the government, then what purpose will he serve for the Americans?

The shenanigans of a dying regime and the pressures from its patron are the least of the problems that the next government will face. The real test and challenge will be governing an increasingly ungovernable country and putting it back on the rails. The future of democracy and indeed of the Pakistan itself will depend on how well Pakistan's politicians perform in this test.

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