Barely a year in office, the Zardari-led coalition government faces the first serious political challenge to its rule. A dangerous confrontation has been triggered by the Supreme Court’s decision to bar Mian Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif from public office and Islamabad’s consequent imposition of governor’s rule in Punjab. This has all the makings of a perfect storm that threatens to plunge the country into deeper political uncertainty and a prolonged period of turmoil.
So far the greatest casualty has been the spirit of reconciliation that accompanied the return of democracy a year ago. The promise of mutual tolerance by the country’s two major political parties and long-time bitter rivals heralded a break from the fractious, zero-sum politics of the past. It signified that lessons had been learnt from a chequered history that had seen politics being reduced to an arena for sterile battles.
The pledge to work by consensus on the rules of the game was deemed essential and therefore enthusiastically supported by the public, for at least two reasons. First, because the enormity and complexity of challenges faced by the country warranted a national rather than a partisan approach. And, second, a spirit of mutual accommodation was necessary to consolidate the fragile democratic process itself after years of military rule. But it hasn’t taken long for that promise to be sacrificed at the alter of the ruling party’s bid to monopolise power.
Few believe the Court’s decision to exclude the Sharifs from power was taken independently of the Executive. Whatever the legal merits of the case, its political motivation seemed unmistakable, giving rise to the widespread public perception that the verdict was influenced by the Presidency. This impression was strengthened by the steps taken within hours of the Court ruling by the federal government: declaring central rule without even the pretence of offering the PML-N the chance of electing a new chief minister. The action supported the view that this was a premeditated power play designed to knock out the Sharifs before they had a chance to mobilise the Punjab government behind the much anticipated lawyers’ march and sit-in, planned to start on March 9.
This game of pre-emption has nonetheless raised the question of whether the Zardari-led government has engaged in classic overreach, biting off more than it can chew. The swift and strong public reaction, particularly across Punjab, compelled government figures to defensively characterise the Court decision as an “unfortunate” weakening of democracy. But such rhetoric rings hollow and has therefore received little public traction. Indeed, no official spokesman has offered a credible rationale of why executive rule has been declared in Punjab for two months. On top of this, ostensible offers of conciliation struck an even more unconvincing note and served only to illustrate official doublespeak.
Already the political war that has been sparked by these developments has turned intensely acrimonious and has manifested itself in noisy clashes in both Parliament and in the streets. This has prompted many commentators to warn of the dangers of a throwback to the Nineties. In actual fact the present situation portends much worse: one, because the daunting challenges and the international pressure the country faces are truly unprecedented, and, two, the country’s institutions are in much poorer shape, with the issue of the higher judiciary so divisive as to make the judicial process almost dysfunctional. For a sustainable democracy such profound divisions over fundamentals are not just deleterious but can thwart the process itself.
For now, public sympathies have swung decisively behind Nawaz Sharif. This has to be seen in the context of three facilitating factors. First, this is in part a function of the PPP-led government’s conduct and performance in office, which has so far not been distinguished by a display of either competence or a clear sense of public purpose. Increasingly, its very capacity to govern is in question.
Second, the public has correctly read the central government’s actions as flagrant disrespect for the electoral mandate in the country’s biggest province. By excluding the Sharifs from office, the PPP government has overlooked a fundamental fact: violating another party’s mandate begets disregard for its own and is tantamount to embarking on a course of self-destabilisation.
This in turn confronts President Zardari and his provincial satrap with the following dilemma. If the PML-N continues to demonstrate its parliamentary majority, Islamabad will be compelled to persist with, and even compound, the undemocratic action it has taken. But if the Punjab governor is able to cobble together a majority on the back of horse-trading, such an arrangement will rest on a precarious and contentious base, devoid of any legitimacy. In that eventuality the PPP will lose by winning.
The third factor that helps to explain why public sentiment currently favours Nawaz Sharif is the lack of credibility of the judicial process itself. This merits no further elaboration.
While the cards seem to have stacked up in Mr Sharif’s favour, his party risks losing wider public support if it strikes too aggressive a posture. Meanwhile, the PPP government’s standing has tumbled and its credibility has been seriously eroded. Above all, the entire episode has strengthened President Zardari’s growing reputation of becoming a polarising figure. His Punjab gamble has destabilised the province and further established him as a divisive leader.
Moreover, in seeking to make the president the country’s de facto chief executive he has caused friction within the political system and engendered institutional distortions. The Presidency has also mired itself in controversial political practices. Rarely in Pakistan’s history has a president presided over party meetings at Aiwan-e-Sadr. Such politicisation of the country’s highest office has no sanction by the Constitution, which envisages the president’s being non-partisan.
The governing style he has displayed is now widely believed to be constraining the country’s ability to seriously address its mounting problems. As a bitter showdown gathers pace, and the political temperature continues to rise, the dangers are all too apparent: With Punjab pitted against the Centre fresh strains can be injected into an already fragile federation; prolonged political confrontation that weakens democracy; and at Pakistan’s most dangerous hour, in the midst of deepening economic crisis and rising militancy, the country locked down in internal political warfare.
History remains a poor teacher in a country prone to repeating its blunders. The prevailing politically charged environment is all too familiar. But the stakes today are infinitely higher than ever in the past. The confluence of the burgeoning political crisis with a wider societal crisis of confidence confronts Pakistan’s current managers with an existential challenge which can be ignored only at great peril to the country. This means the country’s leaders face the moment of truth.
Unless they change course, the country will be driven over the edge, into uncharted territory, left divided, with no direction and also lacking the means to inspire public trust in government, any government.