Feb 15, 2009

Pros & cons of incumbency

BEING in office for a time may help or retard one’s chances of re-election, depending on how gratifying the experience has been for those at the receiving end.Franklin Delano Roosevelt, admittedly one of America’s greatest presidents, was elected in 1932, when the Great Depression had spread doom and gloom, swept away fortunes, forced millions out of their jobs and homes, made the rich poor and the poor destitute and brought the people despair.An independently wealthy man, he befriended the poor. He initiated social security and welfare systems and public works programmes, created jobs and put quite a few people back to work. He ended America’s “isolationism”, joined Britain and France in fighting and defeating Hitler’s Germany, and enabled his country to assume a central role in world politics. His policies and moves in domestic and foreign affairs placed him high in the public’s esteem. The American people elected him president for three more terms in a row, a spectacular feat that has remained unparalleled in American history. Incumbency worked well for Mr Roosevelt.Closer home we might look at Jawaharlal Nehru who served as India’s prime minister for 17 years (1947-64), having been returned to power in successive national elections. A highbrow intellectual, eloquent, wealthy, possessed of an aristocratic bearing, he was an astute politician. He cherished India as a civilisation, country and polity. He had a vision of its destiny to which he dedicated himself. In retrospect some of his policies might not appear to have been right for India, but they were well received at the time. Incumbency worked well for him.Tall, handsome and wealthy, impeccably honest, fearless and tough, one of India’s most eminent lawyers, Mohammad Ali Jinnah entered politics mainly to serve and safeguard Muslim interests in the country. His commitment to this mission never faltered. A Muslim constituency in Bombay elected him to the central legislature several times in succession. The Indian Muslims held him in the highest esteem and affection and called him Quaid-i-Azam (great leader) in recognition of his illustrious service to their causes. He attained the unique distinction of being the founder of a new state, that is, Pakistan. Sixty years after his death, Pakistanis still revere him. Incumbency served him well.No one even vaguely comparable to Mr Jinnah has appeared on the political scene of Pakistan since his death. No national elections were held during the first parliamentary regime (1947-58) and the provincial elections in the early 1950s were blatantly rigged. It cannot then be said whether incumbency would have had any effect on the fortunes of those who marched into and out of the halls of power during this period.Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government (1972-77) performed well in certain areas but did poorly in its treatment of opponents and critics and in terms of its economic policies. It is generally believed that Mr Bhutto and his PPP would have been returned to power in March 1977 even if they had not rigged the elections. This would suggest that, taken as a whole, incumbency would have served them moderately well. But apparently they did rig the elections and that plus some of their misdeeds while in power opened the way for Gen Ziaul Haq’s coup on July 5, 1977. One might then say that in one of its dimensions incumbency worked against them.Coming now to dictators, we find that Ayub Khan ‘s authority began to fall apart as soon as he lifted martial law and imposed a constitution of his own choice upon the country in 1962. Stories of corruption on the part of his family members spread. He sought re-election in 1964-65 and would have lost to Miss Fatima Jinnah had the election apparently not been rigged. He fell precipitously in public esteem after he signed the Tashkent accord with India in January 1966. A popular revolt forced him to quit office in March 1969. Incumbency brought him ouster in disgrace.Not a return to power but another test would have to be applied in the case of military dictators, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. The great majority of Pakistanis regard these two rulers as destroyers of civic virtue and wreckers of political institutions. Incumbency would appear to have brought them the people’s contempt and hatred.In both of her terms as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto’s government was rated as corrupt and incompetent. It was the president of the country, not the people, who dismissed her, and once when she appealed to the courts, they sustained the president’s action. Incumbency brought her disrepute and dismissal.Nawaz Sharif’s record was mixed. The president dismissed his government saying that it had been corrupt and incompetent. He challenged the president’s action in the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favour. The people of Pakistan returned him to power with better than a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly towards the end of 1996. He got into trouble with Gen Pervez Musharraf, the army chief, who ousted him from power in a coup in October 1999. Not incumbency but the “wheel of fortune” may be said to have turned against him.Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and his PML-Q served as agents of Gen Musharraf who continued to rule the country from behind the façade of a civilian government they provided. Consequently, they shared the odium that he merited. They were routed in the elections of Feb 18, 2008. Incumbency brought them repudiation and humiliation.The likelihood is that the present PPP government at the centre is doing some right things. They are hidden from the public view. More widely known is the fact that it is neglecting many of the things that need to be done. The impression has been gaining ground that it is a “do nothing” government that is not even making a serious effort to understand the problems confronting the country, let alone solving them.Its popularity, high as were the expectations from it when it took office nearly a year ago, has been dwindling. If it keeps going the same way it is almost certain to lose the next election in a big way, especially in Punjab, where its rival, Shahbaz Sharif’s PML-N government, is thought to be doing significantly better. Incumbency may then bring the PPP rejection and defeat and the PML-N a higher level of popular approval and a larger victory when the people go to vote the next time.The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is currently a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics.By Anwar Syed

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