Two years have passed since the collective efforts of the political parties, civil society and media managed to restore democracy in the country which was in the high-seas storm. While stock-taking performance of the democratic dispensation it should be kept in mind that it is not the government alone whose performance has to be scrutinised. What we have to analyse is that is the democracy working or it has failed. This is all the more necessary when the drawing room elite renounce democracy because it is noisy and deals with all the contradictions in the society in full glare of an excited media.
Everybody knew in the spring of 2008 that what lays ahead for the forthcoming government is a rough ride. They will have to face political, economic, internal security and foreign policy challenges of no ordinary nature. In my column for this newspaper I had expressed my apprehension that the government would not be able to come up to the expectations of the wretched nation and steer them out of crises. But after two years, contrary to the sweeping statements made by the opposition and Media Pundits, I would says yes the performance has not been to the high expectations pinned by the people, but there have been some positive developments also. So if the overall performance of the democratic dispensation has to be rated keeping in view the challenges they inherited one gives them just a passing grade. So let’s first see where they scored the passing marks and then where they failed. That as a democrat I think should be the order of any analysis, instead of cynical otherwise.
First success of the parties which won the election was to build a coalition government. The alliances built by the PPP, which is the majority party, have survived so far. Yes the PML (N) did fall out but this was good for democracy as a strong opposition keeps the governments under check within the parliament. A positive sign of political parties’ maturity is that so far PML (N) has not tried to flirt with the Khakis to dislodge the PPP-led government. In the past there has always been a demand for the removal of the government by the opposition parties, which created an opportunity for the ever ready military boots to march into Islamabad. Uneasy relations between the MQM and PPP in Sindh over controlling the urban turf have so far not reached a breaking point. It will be put to serious test in the forthcoming local governments elections. One can only wish that the alliance survives through testing times because this alliance is very crucial for the smooth running of the province and the commercial-financial hub of the country – Karachi. In Balochistan and NWFP the alliances have worked for the last two years without much threat, although both the provinces are facing terrorist threats. Coalition governments around the world suffer pulls and pushes from the parties in the alliances, so in Pakistan where democracy is in infancy we should not be consumed by these tussles.
Second challenge before the political forces was how to get rid of General Musharraf, who had conceded to the return of Ms. Bhutto thinking he would continue to be in the commanding position. Political alliance forced him to take off his ‘second skin’ and leave presidency. Getting a military ruler out without an internal coup is no small feat as in the past all of them have left when there were coups within. Remember, the one before Musharraf was assassinated.
Third challenge was how to handle the issue of restoring the judiciary to its rightful place. Independent judiciary is one of the three pillars of state. Though President Zardari dilly-dallied on this issue much to his own loss of credibility, eventually he had to bow to the public pressure and agree to the restoration of judges who were ousted by his predecessor. Here the political government faltered. They had released the Chief Justice from house arrest on the very first day of the parliament session. They could have announced the date of restoration in the same go without making a silly effort to retain Dogar. That unfortunately, started their relations with the judiciary on a hostile note. Even the recent retreat from the judge’s appointment issue has damaged the ruling party’s image. But the fact that it did show flexibility and backed out unlike a military president is the success of democracy, which has a self-correcting mechanism sans rigidity of a dictatorial system.
Fourth major challenge which it inherited was the dwindling economy. The domestic economy was under pressure because many difficult measures to correct the imbalances were postponed by Musharraf government with the hope of winning the elections. Assassination of Ms. Bhutto and rising terrorism had also created the instability in the country which slowed down the economic growth. Difficulties such as high food items inflation and energy crisis were left in the lap of the new government. Much of these problems were imported as the prices of oil and food items have risen drastically internationally. Then the global recession which started in 2008 also affected Pakistan’s economic growth.
However, the government has managed to stabilise the economy to a certain extent but with the help of an IMF bailout package. The tough conditions imposed by IMF to abolish all subsidies on oil, gas and electricity, pressure to reduce budget deficit and to increase domestic savings are unpopular measures. The government had to swallow this bitter pill at the cost of losing its popularity. No doubt the government could have done better by cutting down its non-development expenditure but here it has indeed failed and the criticism against it is justified. But while criticising we should keep the international perspective in mind. Right now even the developed economies are under pressure and their governments are being severely criticized by their own people. Greece, Spain and Portugal are the recent examples. EU is dictating to them the same terms, which are imposed on us by IMF.
Fifth challenge for the government was the energy shortage. It was mainly mismanagement by the previous government, which failed to remove the bureaucratic red-tapism and decision for new power plants were delayed. The present government could not fathom the problem quickly and has managed it inefficiently. Once the people came out on the street protesting against the electricity load-shedding, the government tried to find quick-fix solutions that are expensive. In this process allegations of corruption were made by the media and the opposition. Again public pressure is keeping the government on its toes and has forced it to get ADB scrutiny of the rental power projects.
Sixth challenge to the new democratic dispensation was regarding the most serious issue of internal security. It is also directly related with our foreign policy. Here the consensus evolved by all major political parties has helped the military to take on the terrorists seriously. The Malakand and South Wazirstan operations have been successful only with the support of the democratic forces. Millions of internally displaced people from Malakand were taken care of and sent back once the writ of the government was established. The credit goes to the democratic dispensation also and not to the army alone. Both the ruling coalition and major opposition parties who have presence in the parliament have stood against the Islamic militants at the cost of risking their leadership’s lives.
Seventh challenge to the democratic dispensation was improving relations with the neighbouring countries. Here both the government and opposition seem to be quite close to each other on policy related to India and Afghanistan. But they have little say, as policy regarding relations with India, Afghanistan, China, Iran and US is made in Rawalpindi and not in Islamabad. Mr. Zardari’s attempt to take over National Security Policy making has been snubbed by the establishment. He has been pushed back by unleashing propaganda about his past and present misdeeds. The democratic forces can get the decision making on National Security Policy back to them only if they stand together. Otherwise no political party is strong enough to claim its rightful position alone.
And the eighth challenge was deciding the issue of provincial autonomy for good. In spite of having dictatorial powers President Musharraf’s government has not been able to solve this issue. As a matter of fact Balochistan’s displeasure with the federation became worse, National Finance Commission Award and Water Distribution Accord could not be finalized by his government and these burning issues were postponed. The success of democratic dispensation in bringing a consensus needed for the National Finance Commission award is once again a feat that should not be forgotten by the detractors of democracy. There is also a glimmering hope that the 18th constitutional amendment which is worked out by all the major parties will expand provincial autonomy. If that happens, on 23rd March, as claimed by PPP leaders one can say that democracy has performed fairly well in the last two years, in spite of immaturity, clumsy handling of many issues and intrigues to keep the system shaky.
Though not to our expectation, democracy has worked in the last two years. Don’t be frustrated by all the noise and stories of corruption. A beginning has been made and we have to be patient. If we can give dictators a decade, we surely should give democracy a chance and let all the governments complete their term. (firstname.lastname@example.org)