Triumph and challenges
The oath taking of the newly elected 54 Senators yielded a fair bit of celebration by the PPP in particular, and some members from other parties too. In the event, despite raising slogans in the house being against the rules, the enthusiastic jialas (emotional workers) of the PPP were not about to be contained. PML-N’s Senator Zafar Ali Shah thought it fit to stage a protest walkout when his appeals for maintaining the decorum of the house fell on deaf ears. The high spirits of the PPP supporters, while understandable in the context of the party having attained the position of the biggest segment in the Senate with 41 seats and a two-thirds majority of 70 plus with the support of its allies, nevertheless militated against the restraint and maturity expected in parliament, especially the upper house. Having said that, the fact that the PPP could bag the Senate Chairman and Deputy Chairman slots for its candidates uncontested is cause for satisfaction and celebration, but perhaps also reflects the agreement amongst all parties to give the chairman and deputy chairman’s election a bye. The next stage in the Senate is filling the slots of leader of the house and the opposition. As far as the former position is concerned, newly elected Senate Chairman Nayyar Bokhari’s successor could come from a raft of PPP stalwarts. The received wisdom though is that President Asif Ali Zardari would prefer a solid loyalist for leader of the house. That would seem to diminish the chances of prominent PPP leaders Raza Rabbani and Aitzaz Ahsan. The speculation is that the front runner is Islamuddin Sheikh, the chief whip of the PPP in the upper chamber. For leader of the opposition, the JUI-F’s Maulana Ghafoor Haidri is likely to have to concede to the new arithmetic of the Senate, in which the largest opposition party is the PML-N. And it has Ishaq Dar to field for the slot. Once the leader of the house and opposition are decided, the new look Senate will be ready to get down to business.
Heady triumphalism aside, the PPP-led ruling coalition faces many serious challenges, not the least of which is the expected general elections later this year or early next. For reasons of principle, good governance and the advantage to be gained in the run up to the general elections, the PPP-led coalition needs to address some issues immediately, some later, and some it has to start thinking about, even if not much can be done about them until perhaps after the general elections. Immediately, as some Senators pointed out, the government needs to address the miseries of the people inflicted by high inflation, unemployment and insecurity of life and limb. The coming budget in May may not be able to offer much in the way of relief to the masses because of financial constraints. Inflation is a hard nut to crack, particularly when factors such as the energy crisis and its impact on the economy are taken into account. Nevertheless, the economic managers of the government will have to come up with some innovative measures if the ruling coalition is not to suffer the adverse effects of incumbency. Unless the energy crunch is effectively addressed, struggling industry and commerce will continue to spiral downwards and generate more unemployment, potentially a political bomb that could explode in the government’s face in the approach to the elections. Security for the citizen is becoming a critical issue all over the country, but particularly in the troubled areas north and south. Balochistan was the subject of many senators’ advice that the Baloch people must be relieved of the unwanted attentions of the FC and intelligence agencies if reconciliation is to become even a remote possibility.
Last but not least, without taking anything away from the considerable achievement the 18th amendment represents, the deliberations that led to the framing of this historic amendment revealed that consensus could not be achieved to eliminate completely the distortions in the 1973 constitution imposed by dictator Ziaul Haq. Both in the constitution and laws, his malign legacy continues to play havoc with state and society. To illustrate by way of example, all discriminatory provisions, whether against women, minorities or the desire for a tolerant, modern, civilised society, must be expunged once and for all. The havoc wreaked by the blasphemy law, against whose injustices Governor Salmaan Taseer laid down his life, must attract the political will required to turn the corner from Zia’s dark days and into the light of a forward looking Pakistan where citizens can breathe the air of freedom and rights without discrimination.