January issue 2012
A Question of Survival: How Long Will the PPP Last?
Critics say what two military dictators, General Zia and General Musharraf, couldn’t do to destroy the PPP, its “accidental leadership” is doing to itself. Born after the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the current PPP was elevated to power within months on the basis of momentum created by the slain leader herself. However, ever since then, everything has gone downhill for the party, its government and its popularity.
Co-headed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and President Asif Ali Zardari, the PPP adheres till today to the ‘reconciliation philosophy’ of its late leader and the commitments outlined in the Charter of Democracy. It tried to reclaim political and parliamentary space through the 18th Constitutional Amendment that converted the coercive federal model into a potentially cooperative one, and ensured an equitable sharing of resources through the 7th National Finance Commission Award. The PPP also initiated a package to heal the wounds of Balochistan, resolved the lingering questions of identity in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, honoured the last words of its leader and restored the country’s flag in Talibanised Swat by politically taking ownership of the war against extremism. The PPP also introduced minor reforms to dismantle the colonial Frontier Crimes Regulation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and granted some political rights.
These democratic corrections in the existing framework are no less than a miracle, since the party does not enjoy even a simple majority in the National Assembly and relies heavily on its mixed bag of odd coalition partners. However, citizens — the consumers of Pakistani democracy — appear to be dissatisfied with the PPP on many counts.
The majority has to wage a daily struggle amid the gas and electricity shortages, and to make ends meet due to rising fares and prices. Despite promises and a constitutional commitment, the PPP has shied away from effective local governance at the grassroots level that can deliver best civic services to the 180 million. This casts doubt about the capacity and competence of the party that originally promised “roti, kapra aur makan” (food, clothing and shelter) and vowed to specifically focus on the five Es i.e. employment, education, energy, environment and equality, in its 2008 manifesto.
Founded in November 1967, the party has spent 31 years out of its 44-year existence in the opposition. While it triumphed against historic political resistance for democracy, even today the PPP lacks a well-trained and skilled cadre capable of governing a chaotic country. Since 2008, it has changed its finance ministers thrice (Ishaq Dar, Shaukat Tareen and Hafeez Shaikh), as well as its party information machinery (Sherry Rehman, Fauzia Wahab, Qamar Zaman Kaira and now Firdous Ashiq Awan). The Zardari-led PPP has also engaged itself in a futile exercise to appease the mighty establishment at the risk of annoying its core constituency — the downtrodden but democracy-loving masses. The establishment has always treated the PPP as an odd child in the extended brigade of obedient and puppet politicians and parties. Nevertheless, in the closing year of its longest spell in power, the PPP is trying to rewrite civil-military-judicial relations in the public sphere. If the pendulum swings in its favour, it will be an epoch-defining moment. Otherwise, yet another chapter will be added to its never-ending saga of sacrifices.
In terms of its organisational reality — and functionality — during the last four years, the party institution and its traditional forums such as the Central Executive Committee and the Federal Council have yielded to the so-called Core Committee for all major decisions. The tradition of Parliamentary Party meetings has also died down. Even party press conferences are held at the Press and Information Department, with the exception of a few press talks by Senator Babar Awan, who shifted the party secretariat from a historic building where Benazir Bhutto always delivered her addresses to his private property. On many occasions, the PPP has failed to differentiate between party power and government mandate, and appears to be over-dependent on the official apparatus for party operations.
Since March 2008, the party chairperson, the president, prime minister and the brigade of ministers haven’t visited the Central Secretariat even once. The culture of khuli kutcheries (public courts), a hallmark of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s pro-people politics and public accountability has died down. There is a serious disconnect between the leadership and party workers. Since 2008, the party has not conducted any new membership drive or tried to reorganise the party at the grassroots level. The only reorganisation on its part was the nomination of Faryal Talpur (the sister of the president) as the twin head of the women and youth wings. And the sole reform she introduced was to print a new membership form with a highly personalised oath of loyalty and allegiance to the leadership that was never demanded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. The net result of all this is that the traditional jiyalas (party zealots) are increasingly becoming an extinct species.
It is a historic fact that Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto headed the party for three decades (1977-2007), out of which she was out of power for nearly 25 years. It was her charisma and personalised communication skills that jelled party workers in the most difficult of times. In a country where politics is a tool to perpetuate a “patron-client relationship,” it is a miracle to remain a unifying factor despite being out of power. The current leadership, though in power, has avoided any formal or informal communication links with party workers. The political cost of this negligence will be visible only at the time of the next general elections.
Similarly, despite being in power for the last three-and-a half years, the party has a twin identity in the form of the PPP-Parliamentarians, headed by Makhdoom Amin Fahim, and the mother party, co-chaired by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and President Asif Ali Zardari. Under General Musharraf’s Political Party Order 2002, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari cannot legally head a party as it debars people below the age of 25 from assuming such responsibilities. And the PPP has failed to revisit or reform this undemocratic law. There is also a judicial verdict by the Lahore High Court that puts a question mark on party-related activities initiated by the president at the President’s House. The party has failed to appeal against this as well.
It is difficult to predict the exact political future of the PPP because it enjoys a solid support base among poor Pakistanis that are in a majority in Pakistan. Their devotion to the Bhutto legacy was evident on December 27, 2011, in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh. These poor masses, especially in the majority rural areas, have always defied the pre-condition and outcome debates regarding democracy in Pakistan and have sustained the nation’s democratic dreams for long. Additionally, the traditional winning horses from rural constituencies haven’t divorced the party. Rather, in the largest province Punjab, they have picked up the cause of the Seraikies at the right time and are channelising the party organisation’s efforts in that direction.
On the other hand, the PPP has always failed to attract the so-called educated and well-off, middle and upper-middle classes, who are being drawn towards new political aspirants. Moreover, its failure to nab the assassins of Benazir Bhutto raises serious questions and is bound to haunt it in the future. Besides, the real test for the PPP will be to prove itself as a viable and vibrant party amid emerging new political choices during the next general elections. Despite all the challenges, this time the PPP has an additional premium in the person of Asif Ali Zardari who is a shrewd leader and has defied many traditional notions of politics in Pakistan through his excellent wheeling and dealing skills. One cannot underestimate his capacity to surprise his rivals and stun political pundits.
This article was originally published in the Annual 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “A Question of Survival” as part of a larger cover story on the future of Pakistani politics.
Zafarullah Khan is an Islamabad-based researcher and civic educator, and currently executive director of the Centre for Civic Education Pakistan.