Mar 18, 2009

Right face

As the tension dissipates and the barricades are removed, the nation has a sense of drawing back from the brink. Most commentators seem to agree that the resolution of the crisis during late Sunday and early Monday was 'a good thing for democracy' and that the eventual compromise was just what the doctor ordered. The long march got turned into a street party and everybody went home quietly satisfied that 'the right thing' had been done by all concerned. We now have to live with the consequences of the compromise which, never forget, is not a done deal until the chief justice (retired) has left his office and been replaced by the chief justice (restored or reinstated) – so let's not count our chickens before they are hatched.Both sides – the PPP and the PML-N and the smaller parties – can claim victory and both are crowding our television screens doing just that. The reality is that the PPP has not lost as badly as it could have done. The PML-N and, as some say, by extension the right-wing of Pakistani politics, have made some significant gains. During the course of the tussle the PPP has lost capable ministers that it can ill-afford to lose. It has also lost a vast amount of goodwill and credibility. It has appeared to be devious and untrustworthy, a party that breaks its promises - or at least only fulfils them when it has got its back to the wall and a knife to its throat. It has gained a president of truly spectacular unpopularity and managed to hold on to a prime minister whose footwork would do credit to a prima ballerina. By contrast the PML-N has won the 'trust issue' hands down. They stuck to their mantra of judicial restoration throughout and when push came to shove last Sunday they supported the lawyers by putting feet on the street; creating the tipping point that forced the compromise. The judicial review of the Sharif brothers' disqualification may or may not produce a result in their favour, but the odds would have to be heavily weighted towards them. The clumsy and heavy-handed attempt to disempower the Sharifs has left them stronger at a personal level and strengthened their party position on the rightwing – perhaps taking with them some disillusioned supporters of other secular parties. There may be a temptation for the PML-N in concert with other parties to go for the throat and topple the PPP which is now struggling to re-balance itself. This is a step too far. We do not need further instability and turmoil; we need a period of quiet reflection and time to unravel the constitutional cats-cradle that is probably going to be Musharraf's most enduring legacy. Parliament needs to have a hand in this and the Sharifs should be handed back Punjab. Mr Taseer should find something useful to do that does not involve opening his mouth in public. The compromise in which some see a decline in the fortunes of the secular parties and a corresponding rise in the fortunes of the conservative and religious groups is all a part of the process of transition that began with last years election. We could never have expected the move from dictatorship to democracy to be smooth, and given that the forces in play are essentially unchanged from those in play pre-Musharraf we should not be surprised either that head-to-head conflict is a by-product of the process. Rough-and-tumble politics is up and running but what we have yet to see is parliament as a fully-functional body. Almost exactly a year ago there was much talk of its supremacy – yet there was little to be seen of parliament in the crisis just passed. Parliamentary committees remain either inert or without a chairperson to convene them. The lower house has only passed four pieces of legislation including the budget in the last year. MNAs are tardy in their attendance. With the impediment of the restoration of the judges now cleared away we may be able to travel a little further along the road to democratic maturity but with the political forces and parties differently aligned and empowered compared to a year ago. The problems we face now are the same as we faced then. The judges issue could and should have been resolved months ago. It has served as a distraction from bigger business – business that now needs attending to without delay.

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