The President’s address
It is a measure of Pakistan’s dark past vis-à-vis anti-democratic dispensations that President Asif Ali Zardari’s fifth annual address to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate is considered cause for celebration. As the president expressed it, this indicates the march of democracy and the creation of a new history. As is expected of presidential addresses at the beginning of the parliamentary year, and especially in the run up to general elections in 2013, his speech recounted the legacy inherited by the government when it came to power in 2008 and the government’s efforts to meet these challenges. First and foremost, the president promised fair and free elections next year, for which the 20th Amendment has created an independent election commission. Congratulating the newly elected Senators and MNAs, the president particularly welcomed the four minorities members entering the Senate for the first time after these seats were created under the 18th Amendment. The president thanked the leadership of all the political parties for supporting the democratic process and passing “historic” laws. He complimented Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for his leadership in parliament. He also thanked the opposition for their role. He reiterated the PPP’s policy of reconciliation and taking everyone along, which, it must be conceded, has made possible the survival of the PPP-led coalition government against the expectations of many of its critics.
Dilating on the legacy inherited by the government four years ago, the president listed: a country at war; a divided nation; terrorism and militancy; a fragile federation; unclear role and mandate of state institutions; a distorted constitution; disillusionment in the smaller provinces and vulnerable groups; an energy crisis because of past neglect; a serious economic and balance of payments crisis; on the way, the damage and suffering because of the 2010 and 2011 floods, and last but not least, the sharp rise in the prices of imported oil. Whether one agrees with the president’s claims of having tackled or attempted to tackle all these challenges or not, there is little doubt that the list reads like a formidable series of obstacles to managing politics, the economy and society. Objectively speaking, the government may not have overcome all these challenges, but the president argued that a good beginning had been made in most areas. Much more needed to be done though, he admitted.
One of the most serious crises, which affects every citizen but particularly the less well off, the handling of the economy, may be described as slow, halting stabilisation, but with an enormous overhang from the past. Growth has not recovered sufficiently, despite the projected growth of four percent reflecting an improvement on previous years. Given the problems of terrorism, Pakistan is hard put to it to attract investment. The bad law and order and energy situation has persuaded many businesses to relocate abroad, with the concomitant flight of capital. No one can deny the critical impact of the policy of supporting a proxy war in Afghanistan on the economic prospects of the country. Long after the US/NATO forces depart from Afghanistan, Pakistan would still have its component of the local Taliban to deal with. It goes without saying that until the dust of extremism settles, Pakistan cannot fulfil its economic potential, which remains considerable despite the problems of recent years, compounded as these have been by the global recession. This government’s clear shift of incomes to the rural sector through the managed prices of agricultural products regime has produced prosperity and purchasing power in the rural communities, impacting positively in turn on boosting demand for the products of industry and commerce. Nevertheless, the challenges remain formidable in the near term. This topic cannot be closed without reference to the energy crunch, without resolving which the actually existing economy is beset with enormous problems, with certain energy-dependent sectors virtually grinding to a halt.
Externally, the president repeated the recently acquired mantra of the foreign office to have bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect, equality, inviolability of sovereignty. It goes without saying that the US is centre-stage in our international diplomacy. The president said he awaited parliament’s recommendations on re-engagement with the US. The opening up of trade with India found mention in the address, but to defuse criticism from some quarters, the president made the ritual reference to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. He went on to reiterate Pakistan’s position since the US began a peace process with the Afghan Taliban in Qatar that both Islamabad and Kabul feel left out of that Pakistan supports an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. This acquires more resonance given the precarious situation of the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan after the Quran burning and massacre of civilians incidents.
On Balochistan the president reminded parliamentarians of his apology to the Baloch people for past repression, but skipped over the present state of repression in the province. His reference to the Aaghaaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan package and employment provided to Baloch youth by the federal government and the military once again reflects the government’s misplaced emphasis on development without tackling the repression that has produced a horrendous crop of tortured, mutilated dead bodies dumped all over the killing fields of Balochistan. The only way the president’s desire to reach out to the estranged Baloch leadership can be fulfilled is if the ‘kill and dump’ policy is abandoned by withdrawing the hated FC and handling dissent within the parameters of the country’s laws. Then perhaps development efforts may appear more credible, not without.
What cannot be denied this government is its better record on empowering women, reforms in the tribal areas, surrender of objectionable presidential powers inherited from past dictatorial and autocratic dispensations to parliament through the 18th Amendment, and setting a good precedent of appointing the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly as head of the Public Accounts Committee. It is another matter that that worthy has resigned from that post and is engaged, along with his PML-N colleagues, in frothing at the mouth at the president and government without being able to produce any cogent arguments that may have appeal to the electorate. The opposition’s behaviour in parliament during the presidential address was deplorable, violative of parliamentary norms, which include respect from parliament to the office of the president, and disrespecting the dignity of the house. Hopefully these are the rough edges of our young democracy that will be smoothed out with time and maturity.