Thursday, November 15, 2012

Daily Times Editorial Nov 16, 2012

President Zardari’s promise In his address at an ‘Eid Milan Party’ the other day, President Asif Ali Zardari ranged over a wide exposition on the present state of democracy and politics. The main points elucidated by the president included an assurance that there would be no delay in the elections since steps had already been taken, including updated voters’ lists, to hold fair, free and transparent elections on the scheduled date. This appeared to be the president’s answer to some conspiracy theory reports in the media that the government may be contemplating postponing the elections on one pretext or the other. The president underlined the PPP’s perception that democracy was the only way forward. He offered an olive branch to the estranged PML-N by arguing that although the two mainstream parties had parted ways, this did not mean that they were enemies. Differences should not be stretched too far, he argued, and tolerance and accommodation should be the operative watchwords. Zardari admitted our nascent democracy still had many shortcomings, but said he would welcome inputs from all the political forces to overcome these and frame a 25-year or even 50-year plan as traditional five-year plans could not steer the country out of the current situation. Political parties needed to be strengthened to consolidate democracy. The PPP, he asserted, was working to turn Pakistan into a state that can meet the challenges of the 21st century. In a reiteration of his presidency’s achievements, he reminded his audience that he had delegated his inherited powers to parliament, before which now every power was bowing (although some would argue to the contrary!). The Asghar Khan case verdict had vindicated the late Benazir Bhutto’s accusation at the time that the 1990 election was snatched from her. Today, the president asserted, conspiracies against democracy would not succeed. He celebrated the fact that for the first time since the 1970s, parliament was about to complete its five-year term. Turning to Karachi, the president refuted the argument that the state had failed in the city, countering by pointing to the elements under attack in the war on terror, who were attempting to destabilise Karachi to distract the government’s attention from the ongoing campaign against them. Last but not least, President Zardari positioned himself squarely as carrying forward the ideology of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) and the mission of Benazir Bhutto. While there is much that is of value and unassailable in the president’s remarks, some areas of concern remain. It is heartening to note, despite our litany of discontent at the shortcomings of the democratic system ushered in in 2008, that despite political rivalries and differences, there are hardly any takers in the country for authoritarian or dictatorial dispensations. In this regard, the main opposition leader, Mian Nawaz Sharif, has shown a maturity that is all too rare in our polity and refused to go along with any scheme to upset the democratic system through any extra-constitutional intervention. Despite his complaints and critique of the PPP, this statesmanlike attitude has lent stability and longevity to the democratic system and is a reminder of the continuing influence of the ideas enshrined in the Charter of Democracy. A country that is a stranger to peaceful transfer of power through the ballot stands poised on the brink of the first such transition in our history. Surely the import of this turn cannot escape anyone familiar with the chequered history of Pakistan. While the president and co-chairperson of the PPP has adhered to the reconciliation philosophy Benazir Bhutto left behind as a legacy, it must also be admitted that he has not always lived up to the promise of carrying all political forces along. Nevertheless, this being often an intrinsic part of political rivalry, we should be grateful for the not so small mercies of the record of the last five years: no political prisoners, freedoms across the board that have allowed virtually every group in society to peacefully agitate its demands, and haltingly but surely, a political culture groping its way towards civilised conduct in public life. This is not to say all is hunky dory, only to mark whatever progress is visible. President Zardari spoke in the same breath of the ideology of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his own desire to see a just society in which the child of a poor person would be on an equal footing with a child of the rich and powerful. With the greatest respect, the PPP is widely seen now as detached from its early socialist moorings and merely paying lip service to the founding ideas of the party. This is not just the president’s doing. It is something he has inherited from the trajectory of the party after ZAB’s hanging. The PPP retreated after that tragedy into a mode resembling nothing more than appeasing the powerful state and non-state forces inherently hostile to the party because precisely of its earlier élan. Whether that has worked as a strategy or brought the party closer to the goal of a more just society must be left open as a question and await the verdict of history.

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