The comic tragedy of politics in Pakistan

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rajab 15, 1418 1997-11-16

Special Reports

by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 18, Rajab, 1418)

First there was the troika - the president, prime minister and army chief - that ruled Pakistan. Now it is a foursome, with the chief justice elbowing his way in. In a perverse sense, it could be called progress towards democracy by 25 percent.

Given Pakistan’s precarious state of affairs, the gladiatorial contest between prime minister Nawaz Sharif and chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah could only spell trouble. It also showed how unstable the political system is. The immediate crisis was averted when Sharif backed down on October 31 accepting the chief justice’s recommendation of August 20 elevating five more judges to the supreme court bench.

Given the judiciary’s sorry record in Pakistan, Shah’s claims about asserting the court’s authority are suspect. Having played handmaiden to various dictators, whose consequences the country is still suffering, it did not cut much ice when he claimed that he was only concerned about the judiciary’s authority and independence.

On October 29, just hours before an emergency session of the national assembly was convened to discuss the growing rift, the chief justice entertained a writ challenging legality of the 14th amendment (passed last June) to the constitution. He issued a temporary order against the amendment which bars members of parliament (MPs) from switching

loyalties - horse-trading in popular parlance - in a parliamentary vote.

Horse-trading has bedevilled Pakistani politics for decades. The amendment, called the anti-defection bill, was widely acclaimed when it was passed, for it put an end to the ubiquitous practice of horse-trading. MPs are notorious for switching loyalties in return for financial favours. The vast majority have no loyalty or fixed ideological address. Shah’s move was clearly a green light for them to sell themselves to the highest bidder.

Chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah has other idiosyncracies. When Nawaz Sharif was dismissed as prime minister by president Ghulam Ishaq Khan in May 1993, justice Shah gave the only dissenting opinion in the judgement by other justices who reinstated Sharif. Shah had advanced the ludicrous argument that Sharif was reinstated because he is a Punjabi, whereas another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto (in 1990), was not because she is a Sindhi. This was a low blow from a man occupying such high office in the land.

It was his pro-Sindhi sentiments that earned him the top spot on the supreme court bench when Benazir became prime minister. Later, of course, he fell out with her as well. Shah’s term as chief justice ends in February. His behaviour in the twilight days of his career is difficult to comprehend but it can hardly advance political stability in Pakistan.

Economically, Pakistan is reeling from repeated blows. It was given a massive dose of foreign aid on October 20. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced a US$1.6 billion package. It would tie the regime over for a short while but it also flies in the face of the government’s much-touted slogan, ‘Qarz otaro, mulk sunwaro,’ (Retire the debt, make the country prosper). Catchy slogan, no implementation.

It was the Frontier Post cartoonist who had accurately captured the country’s dilemma last July. It showed a man holding a placard with the above slogan, run over by a large truck. At the rear of the truck was written, ‘IMF loan: $1.6 billion.’

Foreign debt, already more than $30 billion, does not come without strings attached. The government was forced into a massive devaluation of 8.7 percent on October 15. The rupee was steadily losing its value but the sudden shock sent prices sharply higher. With the continuing turmoil in Southeast Asian currency markets, especially Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand, the rupee will come under additional pressure.

Devaluation is helpful only if it boosts exports to earn additional foreign exchange. In Pakistan’s case, this is not so. Many industrial units remain idle. Devaluation will mean higher prices and an increased import bill.

These are problems Sharif has to deal with. He is getting little help from other pillars of the establishment. Even the myriad political parties - one man gangs given the pompous title of political parties - tried to get in on the act, hoping to cash in on Sharif’s discomfort. Benazir, under investigation for billions of dollars in fraud, issued her call, parrot-fashion, that there should be a government of ‘national unity.’ Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, an even bigger crook, is also under investigation and mercifully, behind bars.

At the root lies the question of legitimacy in Pakistan. The entire system is alien to the ethos of the people. Despite Nawaz Sharif’s ‘massive mandate’ according to the numbers game in parliament, he can be held hostage by vested interests. He does not enjoy the support of the masses. The turnout in the last election, according to president Farooq Leghari himself, was barely 25 to 26 percent. The remaining 75 percent did not bother to vote because they have no faith in the system.

Pakistan needs a fundamental change. Those with vested interests have to be de-throned of their privileges. The starting point in this must be the expulsion of American influence from Pakistan. The US continues to rule the country through its ambassador in Islamabad. It is inaccurate to call the country independent. In the 50 years since its creation, Pakistan has simply moved from British raj to Yankee raj. The rulers are beside themselves about the visit of US secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pakistan on November 17.

The billions incurred in foreign debt have to be paid for by the masses who have not benefited from it at all. Additional debt is being incurred without their consent. At every turn, they have been asked to make more sacrifices. There is a limit to how much they can bear.

The system in Pakistan is unworkable. There is a moral, political, economic and judicial breakdown. Only an Islamic Revolution can bring about a meaningful change. There is, however, no Islamic Movement in the country despite numerous political parties with an Islamic label clamouring for this honour.

This is the missing link in Pakistan’s quest for a dignified existence.

Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1997

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