A great victory, a perilous task – Tanvir Ahmad Khan

Tanvir Ahmad Khan

The questions of provincial autonomy, relations between the presidency and parliament, the right balance between the powers of the president and the prime minister and the fullest possible rehabilitation of the judiciary will have to be addressed adequately and promptly

On February 18, the people of Pakistan belied many dark prophecies and handed down an electoral verdict that knocked out the power base of a dictatorship that had lasted almost a decade.

A tidal wave of resentment at General Musharraf’s continuing efforts to subvert this verdict swept across the elected assemblies in August forcing him to trade off the office that he had seized by force in 1999 for an abandonment of the impending impeachment. Come September and the Electoral College chose Mr Asif Zardari as the new president with an unprecedented majority.

It could have been faster but in the end it took less than nine months to complete a process that would certainly be described in Pakistan’s history as the second most difficult democratic restoration, the first being after a military ruler had wantonly lost East Pakistan.

Mr Zardari deserves credit that this restoration has not entailed a heavy price. The people of Pakistan are to be lauded that they have, time and again, reaffirmed their faith in a republican, democratic and progressive dispensation. The state is now symbolised and served by a president and a prime minister that hold office by ballot and not by the fiat of a military putsch.

Mr Zardari is a politician rooted in a party that has borne the brunt of the Pakistani Establishment’s deeply entrenched distrust of popular politics. He has, therefore, not been above controversy. But even a cursory analysis will show that his rise to the highest office was a necessary, if not sufficient, step towards healing the festering wounds inflicted on the federation by the Musharraf regime.

That the members of the Electoral College from the three so-called smaller provinces voted almost unanimously for him on September 6 is an acknowledgement of Mr Zardari’s credentials to initiate the internal dialogue to save the federation.

The split vote in the Punjab assembly also needs to be interpreted correctly. The problems in that province are qualitatively different from the other provinces. Once the PPP-PMLN coalition had collapsed at the federal level, the question of the PMLN’s stand on the presidential election had undergone a substantive change.

Ideally, it could still have formed a part of the national consensus to empower the new head of state to deal with challenges some of which pose an existential dilemma. The PPP sought this consensus virtually till the electors headed for the august legislative houses. It did not succeed and the vote in Lahore reaffirmed the resilience of the two major parties.

It may sound disappointing on the polling day but it should not be a cause for concern in a long-term analysis. The door is still open for cooperation on issues that impinge on national integrity and security. Since the PPP has the two highest offices and will dominate the federal cabinet in foreseeable future, the presence of a robust and responsible opposition may turn out to be an asset in the larger struggle for the democratisation of Pakistan’s polity.

The votes cast for Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui reflect the actual strength of the PMLN which will contest the PPP for people’s allegiance in the years ahead. Siddiqui’s election campaign was characterised by restraint and civility that still define relations between the two parties.

The election campaign of the third candidate will, however, be remembered for altogether different reasons. It was counter-productive in the context of PMLQ’s strategy for survival after the great debacle of the general election. The candidate, our own native, indigenous man for all seasons, ran into some very unseasonable weather and was, by accident or design, reduced to be a part of an unseemly campaign of vilification against Mr Zardari.

Mushahid Hussain Syed hardly ever addressed the electors. Instead, his discourse became indistinguishable from the gossip and scandal circulated through deliberately planted stories — some clearly from abroad — and the streaming text messages and internet chatter. In the final analysis, the electors ignored it and it only undermined Syed’s own reputation as an intellectual. I would count his loss of credibility as a national loss.

President Zardari faces a daunting task. A number of items on the urgent agenda demand simultaneous, not sequential, remedial action. The questions of provincial autonomy, relations between the presidency and parliament, the right balance between the powers of the president and the prime minister and the fullest possible rehabilitation of the judiciary will have to be addressed adequately and promptly.

The economy is in dire straits buffeted by evil winds. It needs a bipartisan, i.e. PPP-PMLN, understanding as the most populous province must figure comprehensively in any salvage plan. This plan must transcend the ad-hocism of the Shaukat Aziz era and include emergency measures, medium-term strategies and a long-term perspective approach.

All our thoughts of national revival are at the moment overshadowed by increasing violence and its integral linkage with the difficulties of managing our relations with the United States.

In the final stage of the presidential race in the United States, the danger of poorly thought demonstrative military actions both in Afghanistan and across the international frontier looms larger than ever before. President Zardari will need to provide leadership for a quick review of the situation and then, most probably, be the main interlocutor from our side in an in-depth dialogue with Washington. He will doubtless discover that the task will require broadening of Musharraf’s linear foreign policy.

Pakistan is without a comprehensive worldview; the forthcoming exchange of views with the Chinese leadership would help develop it. A similar exercise with New Delhi should also take place before long. General Musharraf deliberately emasculated the Foreign Office. The new president should let it come into own and then hold it to rigorous scrutiny. Mr Zardari has come from prisons to presidency. He is the exile come home to claim a kingdom. Let him now lead the nation to its destiny.

The writer is a former foreign secretary who can be contacted at tanvir.a.khan@gmail.com