Feb 25, 2009

Instability rules

The decision by the three-member bench of the Supreme Court, which has disposed of the Sharif brothers’ electoral eligibility case by declaring them ineligible for contesting elections in its two-line short order; was almost a foregone conclusion. Under this verdict Shahbaz Sharif has lost his seat in the provincial assembly. As he is no longer member of the Punjab House, he also loses his post as chief minister of the Punjab, for the SC has simultaneously annulled the earlier notification of his being chief minister. In the wake of the verdict, the Sharif brothers’ lawyer, Akram Sheikh, told the media that the decision was much as expected, as the government, he alleged, was giving dictation to the judges. He said that the Sharif brothers were declared ineligible on the orders of President Zardari – an allegation that neither he nor anybody else is ever going to prove but which a substantial segment of the population are likely to believe. This decision, he said, would be presented as a bouquet to President Asif Zardari on his return from his Chinese tour. And by the end of the day, it precipitated a situation that the government at the centre would have surely done without. Two months of governor rule has been imposed on the country’s largest province, with a hostile governor now in charge of a provincial cabinet whose bulk is unlikely to listen to him. And as expected, a session of the provincial assembly, requisitioned by over 120 PML-N MPAs was held and passed a unanimous resolution condemning the court’s verdict and members repeatedly saying, as well as the assembly’s deputy speaker, that Shahbaz Sharif was still the constitutional chief minister of the province. Almost within minutes of the announcement of the decision, rioting was reported right across the country, and Pakistan once again wades in the murky waters of political instability. That elusive goal of inter-provincial harmony will also come no nearer in the wake of all this. Apart from causing a now-inevitable showdown between the PPP and its allies such as the MQM, the ANP and perhaps the PML-Q on the one hand and the PML-N on the other, it could well create (or perhaps accentuate?) friction between the president and the prime minister, who was just the other day photographed in what seemed a most cordial meeting with Shahbaz Sharif. March is going to be a difficult month for a government which has seen its popularity slide. The personal ratings of the president have not merely slid; they have fallen through the floor. By contrast, perceptions of the Sharif brothers have generally held up well, with Shahbaz Sharif reprising his previous role as an able administrator in Punjab and his brother being seen to have held firm on his electoral promises regarding the restoration of the judges. We must temper this assessment with the knowledge that Nawaz Sharif has never had to make his promises real, and can promise what he likes from the safety of his position as a private citizen and party office-bearer. If ever there was a wrong time for a fight-to-the death by the country’s two leading political parties – this is it. If ever there was a time when we needed cross-party unity in the face of multiple onslaughts – this is it. The government is seen as floundering and weak. Parliament is yet to see the committee-system fully functional and the legislative process is virtually moribund. The economy, just beginning to struggle back, is likely to feel the backdraft from this decision as well, and within minutes the KSE dropped by 294 points, losing 5 per cent of its value in less than an hour. The market had returned to relative stability, now shattered. The Taliban, whittling away at our sovereignty on the north-western borders, know well the benefits of negotiating with a weak government and will doubtless be quietly rubbing their hands in glee at this latest development. No political leader or representative of any party other than the PPP thinks that the judgment is anything other than bad news for Pakistan.One year after democracy was ushered in and stood before a wondering public, its battered body has been wheeled into the hospital, bleeding from any number of wounds. We are back in the territory we were in, in the early nineties, and with many of the same figures on stage. It seems that we have a fatal tendency to repeat, and then repeat ad infinitum, the mistakes that have forever bedevilled us. The hope that was there a year ago has faded; tyres are burning and roads are clogged with protesters, some peaceful but others not, and the potential for significant civil disruption is lurking close by. Salmaan Taseer has been installed as Punjab chief executive and the deadly dance of Pakistani politics waltzes towards a clouded horizon. RIP, democracy. It was good while it lasted.

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