Saturday, March 6, 2010

Challenges for the next president

On September 6, Pakistan will elect a new president for the next five years. The Election Commission has already accepted the nomination of Asif Zardari, Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui and Mushahid Hussain. Although the Constitution lays down high criteria for the post, it seems there is considerable laxity in its interpretation. The president should be a person who commands respect at the national level, has an unimpeachable character and is a unifying force.

If we look back at presidents past, from Iskander Mirza, Ghulam Mohammed etc to Pervez Musharraf, there is hardly any among them that would make the nation proud. That is not to say that Pakistan was or is devoid of suitable persons, but we have not allowed the democratic process to mature.

As a consequence, political parties and state institutions have remained weak and failed to provide the necessary checks and balances that allow merit to take precedence over patronage. Leadership of most political parties is still centred on families and feudal groups. For some columnists to suggest that the answer to correct the anomalies in our system lies in intervention by the armed forces is preposterous and shows how we have refused to learn from our experiences. It is the institutions of the state — the judiciary, Parliament and the executive — and civil society that should be strengthened so that they can exercise the necessary oversight and keep a check on power.

Clearly, Mr Zardari is the candidate most likely to be the next president as he has the largest numerical support in the two houses. And what is most promising that he is becoming the president through a constitutional and fully democratic process. With the outcome a foregone conclusion, it is important to analyse the implications of his becoming president on the prevailing domestic situation and relationship with the international community.

In the event Mr Zardari becomes the president, there will be a heavy concentration of power as he already has considerable say in the running of the office of the prime minister and is also head of the PPP. After the Senate elections in March 2009, the PPP would have a majority in the upper house, further expanding its power base. In addition Mr Zardari represents the powerful Bhutto family that projects its own inherent power in our society and body politic.

Interestingly, accumulation of power is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. Invariably, all our civilian and military leaders have concentrated power in either the office of the president or prime minister. Classic examples are Zulfikar Ali Bhutto picking a weak president in Fazl Elahi even when the president was constitutionally stripped of all powers. Benazir Bhutto’s choice of Farooq Leghari, who belonged to the PPP, was to maximise political power. Similarly Nawaz Sharif commanded a two-thirds majority in parliament and had the docile Rafiq Tarrar in the presidency. Despite these highly favourable power configurations, the civilian leadership failed to provide stability and was unceremoniously removed.

What our leaders need is support of the people and strengthened institutions that emerge from better policies and their faithful execution, not by amassing more power.

The major challenges that the country faces, whether it is the war on terror, a declining economy, weak governance or the insurgency in Balochistan, will be better dealt with if there is greater cooperation and consensus on these issues among major regional political parties.

Power must return to the parliament if the country is to democratise and leaders are to draw power from the people and not from the establishment or external “benefactors” as in the past. Elimination of Article 58-2(b) is essential, otherwise Pakistan could lapse once again into a situation where elected representatives are competing with unelected centres of power.

These apprehensions notwithstanding, one cannot but give Mr Zardari credit. He has risen from the status of a spouse to becoming the most powerful political personality in Pakistan. After the tragic murder of Benazir Bhutto, he was able to hold the party together under extremely adverse circumstances. The PPP not only survived, it once again emerged as the single largest party in the country with representation across the federation. Zardari has made some positive moves of reconciliation towards Balochistan and has been working closely with the ANP, the MQM and regional parties.

Zardari’s real test will, however, commence after he assumes the office of the president. In this capacity, he will have to operate within the institutional parameters of the presidency, very different from the existing mode where he has relied on deals and ‘understandings’ with enormous power but hardly any accountability or official responsibility.

This change will be good for him and good for Pakistan. Our leaders need to be reminded that immense power brings with it huge responsibilities and also greater vulnerability as all failures are attributed to the individual and his inner circle.

Zardari has been smart, no doubt, in consolidating his personal and his party’s interests. His success as a leader would depend on how the coalition government and his party address the challenges of militancy, rising fiscal and monetary imbalances, energy shortages, issues of governance and relations with the PMLN. Equally important is how he will manage relations with US, India and Afghanistan.

The Bush administration seems comfortable with Zardari. He is supportive of the war on terror, is liberal and heads a secular party that wants good relations with the West. They are, however, sceptical about the ability of the coalition government to govern effectively and its policy of dealing with militants.

There are rumours that Zardari may decide to destabilise the Punjab government led by the PMLN. He should not fall prey to this temptation. Not only will it initiate the replay of the 1990s when both the PPP and the PML were at each other’s throats, and democracy and the people suffered enormously as a result. If he allows the government of Punjab to function, he will promote democratic ethos, a prerequisite for political stability.

Settling the judges’ issue amicably is pivotal to stabilising the body politic of Pakistan. It will restore Zardari’s credibility, provide a huge political bonus and disarm the lawyers and civil society, bringing them on his side. He will also chip away at the high moral stand that Nawaz Sharif and leaders of the APDM have taken since March 2007.

Above all, strengthening the judiciary would have a cascading effect of strengthening other state institutions. Failure to take these measures will intensify the socio-political fault lines and deepen the economic crisis. Militants, who already are gaining strength, will surely exploit this weakness.

Support of the PMLN and civil society is crucial in combating terrorism and fighting the insurgency in FATA and the NWFP. Zardari has to realise that unless we succeed in containing insurgency and are able to achieve a modicum of political stability, it would be unrealistic to expect Pakistan to attract foreign and domestic investment.

Zardari has proved to be a smooth operator and successful in consolidating and expanding his power base. Now he has to use it for the benefit of the country.

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