Jan 15, 2010

Friendly opposition?

Muhammad Umer

The departure of former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf from the political scene of the country two years back resurrected hopes for the birth of an environment essential for nurturing democracy, which has hitherto been a victim of infanticide in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. But all those hopes died off sooner than most of us had thought.

Now almost two years into a so-called democratic dispensation, the system is stuck in a rut raised by inaction on the part of the PPP-led government that is suffering from siege mentality and struggling to survive. The result is that key national issues are yet to be resolved and good governance continues to remain alien to Pakistani society. Public good, the upshot of democracy, remains as elusive as ever.

Much blame for this sorry state of affairs goes to the ruling party, which seems to have excelled in the art of taking wrong decisions on critical issues. Its reluctance to repeal the 17th Amendment and restore the 1973 Constitution to its original form, the imposition of governor's rule in Punjab, its dithering over the implementation of the Charter of Democracy signed by its slain leader Benazir Bhutto, its shameless protection of the sugar and cement cartels and land mafias, and its failure to end corruption and power cuts and provide employment are but some of the many reasons for the ills befalling this nation. But what about the role of the opposition, whose equal responsibility it is to ensure public good by keeping a watchful eye on whatever the ruling party does in the name of national interest?

The opposition is one of the prerequisites for democracy. It holds the executive to account for its faults and failings through constructive criticism. Without it, democracy would be like a sailor without their compass, or a body without its soul, for dissent emanating from a yearning for public good is the driving force behind democratic societies. It then holds out little hope that the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the main opposition party of the country, has restricted its role to making demands for the repeal of the 17th Amendment and the implementation of the Charter of Democracy. Its leadership has chosen not to focus its criticism on the government's criminal neglect of the poor as well as on its failure to resolve urgent issues such as inflation, unemployment, corruption, cartelisation and lawlessness.

Nawaz Sharif and other senior leaders of the PML-N have criticised the government for these problems but only in passing. Their criticism lacks the kind of sharpness and seriousness warranted by these problems so much so that they are having to clarify that the PML-N is not a friendly opposition -- a euphemism by which the party is now known.

Let's try to understand why the PML-N is behaving the way it has over the past two years. Sharif says he does not want to derail democracy and would want the PPP to complete its mandated five-year term in government. But the question is: where in the world is constructive criticism considered an attempt, let alone a conspiracy, to dislodge a democratic government?

While George W. Bush of the Republican Party was in office, his policies including the invasion of Iraq and the lies he had spun for that war came under attack from the Democrats but no-one in the United States described the democrats' onslaught a conspiracy against democracy. Likewise, President Barack Obama has had a tough time convincing the Congress of the viability of his administration's healthcare insurance reform aimed at providing the Americans with quality and affordable health care whether they lose their jobs, change jobs or get sick. The Republicans have opposed Obama's health care approach, calling it a government takeover of the system and too costly. But neither side has gone to the extreme of accusing its opponent of working against the national interest.

In the United Kingdom, the MPs' expenses scandal brought the ruling Labour Party into disrepute. Many heads rolled and Prime Minister Gordon Brown had to apologise to the nation as the Conservatives came down hard on his government. This would make it harder for British law makers to misuse public money. Nobody called the Conservatives anti-democracy for doing the job they were supposed to do.

But here in Pakistan, one sees no such focused debate on important public issues. On the first day of the new year, the government gifted the people a big increase in the gas tariff followed by a similar increase in the electricity rates. There was no debate in parliament before these utilities were made costlier. Some criticism has come from the PML-N but it has, like the PPP, largely blamed the Musharraf regime for the most of current problems. The IMF has now estimated that Pakistan's total external debt stocks will increase by more than 43 per cent over the next five years to $73 billion from just below $51 billion to meet its financial needs. Heavens! Having no clue about how it can fix the economy, the government has taken to borrowing money repayment of which will consume many future generations. Does the opposition have any remedy to offer?

Could it be that the PML-N is short on ideas and long on rhetoric? During the campaign for the February 2008 general election, the party leadership had hardly had any concrete economic policy to sell other than the promises that it would bring about a radical change in the country and put it on the path of progress and prosperity. And how did the party propose to achieve all that? It had a simple solution; it promised to reverse the policies introduced by Musharraf and remove the amendments he made to the constitution. Who says running a state is difficult?

If the PPP government repealed the 17th Amendment and restored important powers to the prime minister, would that resolve the problems facing the country? Would that make the 'empowered' prime minister wiser, create jobs and end energy crisis, corruption and nepotism? Would the country be then able to combat the menace of terrorism and militancy?

The PML-N currently enjoys a unique position; it is not only the main opposition party, it is also the ruling party in Punjab, the largest province of the country. What its government in Punjab did to deal with the sugar crisis was no better than what the PPP government did. Both benefited from the crisis while the people suffered.

The fact is that all these issues are real and will require solid solutions found through thorough thinking, not the constant repetition of rhetoric. Making a difference requires setting well thought out principles and preparing policies consistent with them. In politics, perceptions are important. How a political party deals with issues helps create a public perception favourable to it.

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