Feb 19, 2009

A year down the road

TREMENDOUS euphoria surrounded the outcome of the Feb 18 elections last year. After a long, debilitating bout of dictatorship and sham democracy, the people resoundingly rejected those who had been lording it over this country under false pretences. An army general had overthrown an elected government in 1999 and taken the country to the doorstep of economic and social catastrophe. The country was bankrupt and inflation had skyrocketed. Militants had come to rule large tracts of the tribal belt and suicide bombers were spreading death and ruin. At the same time, everyone knew that the ‘elected’ representatives who dominated Gen Musharraf’s tailored democracy and controlled his designer parliament were nothing but puppets. The outlook was bleak but Feb 18 changed all that, albeit briefly.
A year down the road, despite all the potholes and speed-breakers, the democratic process is still intact. That in itself, given our history, is something of an achievement. The reconciliation experiment, in which a grand coalition of foes was cobbled together, still hasn’t blown up the laboratory. The PML-N may have left the government at the centre and become increasingly confrontational but things haven’t quite fallen apart yet. The PPP-led government in Islamabad also created history by publicly apologising to the people of Balochistan for the excesses committed against them by the state. The insurgency in Balochistan has ebbed dramatically in recent months. Moreover, some notable improvement has been recorded in the fight against militancy in Fata, though not in Swat.

So much for the perceived successes, for they have been few and far between. By and large, the public has become disillusioned with a government that has devoted much of its time to power intrigues than to governance and solving the problems faced by ordinary citizens. There is little respite from inflation, affordable housing (which the PM promised in March 2008 in his 100-day plan) is yet to materialise, and healthcare and sanitation services remain as ramshackle as ever. Several promises have been broken: the Supreme Court judges sacked by Gen Musharraf have not been restored, the Charter of Democracy has not been implemented in letter and spirit, little or no movement has been seen on repealing the 17th Amendment, and the Frontier Crime Regulation has not been repealed. It was pledged by the PM in March 2008 that the Concurrent Legislative List would be abolished within a year, in line with the stated goal of introducing greater provincial autonomy. Well, March 2009 is just round the corner but so far all we have encountered on this count is empty talk. Then, in apparent contravention of the constitution, what we have now is a political system that is more presidential than parliamentary in nature. It is the presidency, not parliament or the PM House, that calls the shots. The people of Pakistan expect better from a democratic dispensation.

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