Feb 28, 2009

The Numbers Game

There now seems to be no way out of it. The game of numbers is on in earnest in Punjab. Reacting to the situation that has arisen in the province following the disqualification of Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, President Asif Ali Zardari has said there will soon be a PPP government in the largest province. He has also hardened his tone when it comes to the Sharifs. The PML-N meanwhile seems determined to block a PPP chief minister from being elected. If it succeeds, the embarrassment will be immense for the federal government and especially the president. It now seems obvious it is determined to go for a full showdown, and that Prime Minister Gilani's suggestion that a way be found to restore the PML-N government has been rejected. A cabinet meeting, called on Friday, reached the rather mundane conclusion that the disqualification of the Sharifs was within the rules, but 'unfortunate'.Both the PPP and the PML-N of course have plenty of experience, dating back to the 1990s, when it comes to playing the game of numbers. It is sad they have not realized how much damage the process of winning over votes through any available means causes to the democratic process as a whole. In the 370-member Punjab Assembly, where 186 votes are needed to form a majority, the coming days will be intriguing ones. In this house, the PML-N holds 169 seats, the PPP 107. The numbers needed to elect a chief minister will have to be provided by the PML-Q, suddenly thrust into the role of king-maker. But there are complications. Of the party's 84 MPAs, 34 have reportedly formed a forward bloc that has pledged loyalty to the PML-N at a meeting that has taken place at the Sharifs' Raiwind estate. The walls and pillars of the mansions there have of course seen similar intrigues and power games in the past. The PML-Q's other 50 members are being courted by the PPP and an effort is said to be on to carve out a forward bloc within the PML-N. Rumours abound of cheques being written out and key ministries promised. At present, the PML-N, despite being disappointed with a rather unimpressive show in Lahore when it comes to street power, seems fairly well placed to retain control in Punjab. But efforts to lure away PML-Q members will continue and the final outcome is as yet far from certain. The PML-Q is struggling meanwhile to maintain some kind of united front, with party members apparently displeased with a leadership decision to join hands with the PPP. What the PPP and President Zardari will do if they are not able to elect a CM of their choice in Punjab is an open question. They seem to have left themselves no options at all.It is unfortunate our politics has been reduced to this. Out on the streets, when people talk of politicians, a string of colourful adjectives are now used to describe them. The choicest ones are reserved for the president. Up in his new house at Chak Shahzad, former president Pervez Musharraf must be chuckling. Perhaps, as debate over the situation continues in the National Assembly, saner council can prevail and the damage being inflicted on democracy checked. But with both sides now locked into frontline positions, this seems unlikely as we head towards a final showdown in the Punjab Assembly where principle has given way to the ugliest battle to win over MPAs. Once more wealth and influence is being used to determine political destiny, and there will, in the future, be a heavy price to pay for this.

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