President Asif Ali Zardari is the curator of the changeover to a democratic state and on his shoulders rests a very heavy burden. – Photo by Reuters
Is Project Democracy in trouble? Is the latest kerfuffle in civil-military relations, this time over the Kerry-Lugar bill, just another manifestation of the broken, chaotic decision-making process at the institutional level from which the system will soon move on?
Or is it another marker in deteriorating relations between the presidency and the army high command that are slowly edging towards the point of no return? When — if — the obituary of the Zardari presidency or government is written, it’s safe to say that the Kerry-Lugar fiasco will surely merit more than a footnote.
So which is it? Are we headed for bust and the derailment of the present phase in the transition to democracy, or even the transition itself, or is this what democracy in Pakistan is set to look like for the foreseeable future, a process characterised by brinkmanship without quite slipping too close to the edge of the cliff?
First things first: while the army high command is currently unlikely to bring a halt to the democratic process or unseat the present political dispensation, it would be foolish to think that it cannot or will not under any circumstances. Zardari and co clearly have some space to govern, but that space isn’t unlimited and its boundaries may be closer than imagined by the pro-democracy camp.
What’s particularly troubling about the Kerry-Lugar fiasco is how the army high command essentially came out and fired a warning shot across the government’s bow and then promptly retreated behind a wall of silence, leaving it to the government to clean up the mess with the Americans, the opposition and the public.
Since it’s difficult to imagine that the army was not aware of what was unfolding in the US Congress, the army’s tactics amount to a classic political ambush at home. The main cause for worry is not that the army would attempt a hatchet job at all — that our politics is often bare-knuckled is well known to our politicians — but that it would do so on an issue in which the government has invested so much and has little to no room to wriggle away or save face.
The bill was already passed by Congress by the time the army chose to pipe up and the government had already tried to drum up the aid package as its greatest foreign-policy success to date. Political opposition to the bill was always expected, but that’s the nature of our politics — automatically reject in opposition what you would likely do in government.
The army intervention, though, amounted to a kneecapping for the government; and without a doubt it will lead the most hawkish and paranoid in the government to wonder if a decapitation is next. The more reckless may even push for a strike-before-the-army-strikes counter-strategy.
Which brings me to the second point: Zardari must chart a new course from here. And that course must eschew confrontation with the army while at the same time reaching out to the political opposition more urgently.
When a grenade of the kind lobbed by the army lands in the court of someone as constitutionally powerful as Zardari, there is a mighty temptation to return the favour. Turning the other cheek does not come easily to anyone with the hubris to imagine they can run a country like Pakistan. Nor is turning the other cheek really advisable when your tormentor may in fact want to slap you into submission or worse.
But Zardari is not just another president in the country’s tawdry political history; he is the custodian of the transition to democracy and on his shoulders therefore rests a very heavy burden.
Like him or hate him — and it is apparent that there are many, many in the latter camp — focusing on Zardari the politician, president or person misses the larger point, that he is uniquely placed to give the country what it so desperately needs: democratic continuity.
Zardari’s democracy will necessarily be ugly, scandal-plagued, tawdry even. Part of the blame for that must lie with him, but there is also the fact that he is a creature of his environment, and the politicians in the Class of 2008 aren’t the most savoury of characters.
Yet, whatever the sins of this government, present and future, nothing will come close to the damage caused to the prospects for democracy if Zardari fails to ensure democratic continuity in the short term and a democratic transfer of power in the medium term.
The country will never, ever come close to addressing its fundamental problems if it does not settle on one framework of governance, one set of rules for how the state is to be organised and run.
To believe the army has the solutions is to believe in a fairytale. And to believe the army at least has the ability to ensure the security of the state and its people and therefore must influence the state’s policies or at least set its parameters is to ignore the fact that some of the greatest threats to national security in our history have been created and exacerbated by the army itself.
So what Zardari must do is stop the fresh incursions into political terrain by the army. Whether it is the army’s intention or not, the fact is that a year and change into the transition to democracy, army intervention in controversies such as the Kerry-Lugar bill and the restoration of the deposed judges is chipping away at the fragile wall that is keeping the army out at the moment. That wall needs to be strengthened, but in a shrewd way. Directly confronting the army while Zardari’s flanks are exposed by his personal unpopularity risks bringing the wall down altogether.
So what can Zardari do? Win back the PML-N. A unified political front would work to Zardari and his government’s advantage in two ways. One, it would reduce the intra-political pressure his government is under. Two, a stronger political front would mean the army would need to be more careful about its political forays.
Ah, but how can he trust the PML-N? Isn’t it not-so-secretly hoping for mid-term elections? Wasn’t Shahbaz Sharif caught powwowing with Kayani recently? All true, and Zardari probably can’t trust the Sharifs.
But Zardari also needs to quietly assess who poses the bigger threat to his party and its future. Between the PML-N and the army, the PML-N is from a structural point of view weaker while the army is only temporarily weakened by its tarnished political credentials. And in the democracy stakes, the PML-N cannot shut out the PPP, only the army can.
Again, it’s not clear if the army is interested in forcing change at the moment. But it is clear that the fragile wall against possible army intervention is being eroded. And in a place like Pakistan, a civilian leader ignores such a development at his peril.