Mar 4, 2009

Confusion at the top

Even with all hands on deck, overcoming the myriad crises that hold this country in a vice would challenge the best of administrations. Militants roaming the length and breadth of Pakistan, an economy struggling to stay afloat, a transition from a damaging dictatorship to a tenuous democracy — name the malaise and Pakistan probably suffers from it. And in the midst of this all came the mobile-courts ordinance, like a bolt of lightning, with no warning and little justification.
Promulgated by President Zardari on the eve of a National Assembly session (itself meant to discuss the president’s controversial imposition of governor’s rule in Punjab), at the very least the ordinance undermined the principles of good governance and parliamentary democracy. But Prime Minister Gilani’s advice to the president to withdraw the ordinance revealed something more: dysfunction in the ranks of the PPP itself.
The party will try to brush this issue aside and deny intra-party rifts. Although the ordinance has been withdrawn, the flip-flop has exposed defects in the PPP’s decision-making process that cannot so easily be dismissed.
In recent weeks, speculation on the state of relations between the prime minister and the president has been rife. Conspiracy theorists have thrived, but the reality is that the prime minister has done little that could be regarded as a challenge to the PPP co-chairman, President Zardari. However, the structure of the current dispensation in Islamabad does lend itself to causing uncertainty.
De facto as co-chairman of the PPP and de jure as a president who has inherited the powers that Gen Musharraf arrogated to himself, Zardari appears to be the boss. But the prime minister sits atop what was meant to be a system of parliamentary democracy with the president confined to a ceremonial role. When one is armed with the powers the other is meant to have, conflict may appear inevitable.
However, when the president and prime minister belong to the same party, in theory conflict should be avoidable. In fact, this was supposed to be a settled issue. Last year, President Zardari stood before the combined houses of parliament and grandly announced, ‘Never before in the history of this country has a president stood here and given away his powers.’ But no powers have been ceded yet, and with the abortive attempt to institute mobile courts President Zardari once again tried to bypass parliament. Meanwhile, the other crises that afflict this state continue unabated. Though if it is to ever tackle those issues effectively, the PPP must first put its own house in order.

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