Feb 28, 2009

Democracy derailed

PUNJAB is up in flames in the wake of the court decision that the Sharif brothers were not eligible to contest elections or hold public office. This is not surprising.
The PML-N had won a popular mandate in the province and there was a general view that Shahbaz Sharif had provided good governance in his year-long rule. What is incomprehensible is why the PPP decision-makers failed to realise that a strong public reaction is to be expected if an elected, popular government is removed and governor’s rule is imposed in its place. This is a major development that threatens to derail democracy in this country.
The other decision which threatens democracy is the peace the ANP has made with Sufi Mohammad in Swat. In principle, of course, negotiation and peace are always better than the use of military force. Unfortunately, whenever attempts at making peace were initiated earlier, they made the Taliban stronger and the common people suffered from their domination and barbaric practices. Even this time, according to newspaper reports, military vehicles will move in Swat with the prior permission of the Taliban.
If this is true – and I hope it is not – the common people would be left to the mercy of the Taliban. This is not peace; it is the death of democracy in Swat. It is, indeed, the extinction of the hope of democracy and human rights in that unfortunate piece of land. But going back to the derailment of democracy in the whole country, let us consider the fallout of the imposition of governor’s rule in Punjab and the ouster of the Sharif brothers.
Three scenarios come to the mind. First, the people will be cowed after a few days of anger and an uneasy peace will prevail. The PML-Q and the PPP will form a government in Punjab and the PPP will complete its tenure. However, when elections are held and these are fair it will be voted out and will no longer remain a strong national party.
This will be very unfortunate since the PPP is still seen as the best choice for liberals and religious minorities in this country. Other parties, including the PML-N, tend to encourage jingoistic nationalism and also pander to religious prejudices. Both attitudes, if taken to extremes, are inimical to peace, human rights and the spirit of democracy.
The second scenario is that the agitation will continue. The lawyers’ movement will also strengthen it and, after much police brutality and bloodshed, the PPP government will have to agree to hold mid-term elections. In this case even if the PPP loses votes the process of democracy will be strengthened and the PPP will gain some credit for having allowed elections.
However, the longer the period of agitation the fewer the PPP’s chances of winning elections in Punjab. Moreover, the economy will suffer and the enemies of democracy will get a chance to point out that democracy does not work in the country.
The third scenario is that the agitation will be so strong or so lengthy that the army will step in. If this happens the process of democracy will be disrupted once again. That would be the worst possible thing to happen and will weaken liberal and democratic forces in the country more than anything else. In short, we will be back to square one as we have been several times in the past.
Besides, there are other possibilities also. For instance, there may be a revolt within the PPP resulting in pro- and anti-Zardari factions, new combinations of political actors may emerge, and so on.
However, the chances of all this happening are few, But they could also lead to the weakening of the PPP, mid-term elections or even a new dictatorship.
In short, what we are witnessing is a shattering of our dreams of only one year ago. What we had expected was that the judges would be restored with Iftikhar Chaudhry as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the PML-N and PPP would rule the country jointly for five years and people would truly start believing that democracy can function in the country.
The sceptics assure us that if Iftikhar Chaudhry had been restored he would have abolished the NRO and that would have meant the end of Zardari’s career. First, this is by no means certain. It is possible that he would not have touched Zardari in any way. Secondly, if he had been restored after Zardari became the president there would be no problem as Zardari would have enjoyed presidential immunity. And, above all, if Zardari had done all the right things he would have been so popular that he would have had an assured future in any future political set-up even if he had to leave this one.
As it is, Zardari seems to have taken steps which will probably harm him in the long run. Moreover, he is seen as the architect of a script which has caused widespread disappointment in the new dispensation. The judges illegally removed by Musharraf still remain where they have been for so many months. The functionaries appointed by Musharraf are still functioning. The off-and-on relationship with the Taliban still remains. People still tell us that the armed forces either cannot or will not destroy the Taliban. Investment is still down and young people have little hope of finding good jobs. Bombs still explode in our midst. The system remains the same; only the faces have changed. Democracy has been derailed – but was it even on the rails?

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