TOPICS:Giving democracy a chance

As Pakistan appears to lurch from one political crisis to another, there may be a silver lining in the army continuing to keep its distance from politics and the political leadership affirming the democratic process, despite the setbacks.

The return to electoral politics has been a rocky, roller-coaster ride, plunging to its greatest low with the murder of former PM Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27. Her controversial widower Asif Ali Zardari — brought in as party co-chair along with their college-going son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari — has managed to stay on top of things, blithely making and breaking promises.

The decision of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to nominate Zardari as president after the resignation on Aug. 18 of the party’s enemy number one, Pervez Musharraf, led to more speculations and uncertainty.

Zardari is largely perceived as corrupt although no cases have been proved against him in court. A joke doing the rounds is a plea to tell Zardari that 58-2-b does not mean 58.2 billion dollars. The reference is to Article 58-2-b inserted into the Constitution by the military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88) which empowers the president of Pakistan to dissolve the assemblies and dismiss the prime minister.

During the 1990s, presidents used 58-2-b to topple three governments. In his second tenure as PM, Nawaz Sharif got the offending article struck down. However, it was not the president but the army chief Gen. Musharraf who overthrew Sharif’s government. In October 1999 Musharraf assumed position as the country’s ‘chief executive’ and then became president, restoring Article 58-2-b. The alliance between the PPP and the PML-N dates back to the historic ‘Charter of Democracy’ that Bhutto and Sharif co-signed in London in May 2006, ending decades of political rivalry.

After the elections this year, the PPP and PML-N formed a coalition government. Their coalition, already strained due to Zardari’s foot-dragging over the ‘judges’ issue’, fell apart when Zardari’s presidential candidature was announced as Sharif maintained that his party had not been taken into confidence.

Mazhar Abbas, secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, pointed out that despite the split between the PPP and PML-N their leaderships have demonstrated political maturity and acceptance of each other, asking their workers not to badmouth the other party.

In a letter to the editor asking journalists to refrain from giving the ‘establishment’ any excuse for army intervention, while acknowledging Zardari’s flaws and blunders, he asked, “What will happen if Zardari becomes president? It will be easy to make him and the PPP accountable to the people. Let democracy take roots and let military stay out of politics.” As the unpredictable Zardari appears set to become Pakistan’s next president, it remains to be seen how he will use his powers. He has surprised critics in the past. In the present scenario, Pakistan’s best hope may be for him to surprise his detractors again. — IPS