June Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

The government of the Pakistan Peoples Party is facing two clear choices. It can take the populist course of action by promptly restoring deposed chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, along with the other judges, and bring down President Pervez Musharraf. Or it can focus on governing the country, hoping that its performance will somehow push these two issues off the public mind. The tragedy is that so far it has exercised neither. The first 100 days in power are flying to an end and there is no solution of the lingering problem of the restoration of the judges in sight, nor is there any public sign that General Musharraf has any desire to gracefully fade into oblivion. Worse, Islamabad does not have even the pretence of a functioning government.

The PML-Q opposition is crawling out of the woodworks and is gleeful. “The government is digging its own grave and will complete the job in three months time. We are surprised at their incompetence and some of us believe that at this speed, this could well become the most short-lived government ever,” says Amir Muqam, party president from the NWFP. This may be wishful thinking, but it does point to the tumbling stocks of the government’s popularity. Part of the problem is that government functioning is tied closely to the apron strings of the present party leadership, which isn’t leading. The PPP continues to miscalculate its own ability to control the flow of national politics. Party insiders say that Asif Ali Zardari, PPP’s political tsar, wants to keep his options open, assuming that he will have time to adjust according to the circumstances.

“The circumstances are changing quickly. The establishment has practically collapsed and its last vestige, General Musharraf, is going down. We will see the full picture emerge soon. There is no point showing our cards at this point in time,” said a close confidant of Zardari. Economically stated, this is fence-sitting. In keeping his options open, Zardari is actually playing both sides, deepening the impression that he and his party’s government believe in little, and are willing to do even less. An angry General Musharraf made this point to an important middle-man who, earlier this month, carried a message from Zardari suggesting that the beleaguered president should consider quitting.

“The president lost his cool. He had many unkind words to say about Zardari, which included the remark that he is too clever for his own good,” says the go-between. Later on, Zardari gave his version of the event to a group of editors. He said that in response to his suggestion that the president should consider packing his bags, the president’s growling retort was, “Make my day.” “What can I do now?” mused Zardari, in part to indicate the limits of his own power and in part to justify his assertion that the time is not ripe for a final showdown with the retired general. And that was the end of a day-long hype in the media about the impending departure of General Musharraf from the scene.

This has left the other half of the coalition government, the PML-N, wondering whether the PPP is at all serious in speedily driving the last nail in Musharraf’s political coffin.

“Our doubts are growing about who the PPP is actually aligned to — us or Musharraf? We would not be the first ones to declare these doubts and thus cause a break-up of the political understanding with the PPP, but I can assure you that Zardari is not fooling anyone with his present strategy,” says a member of the PML-N’s central executive committee.

The PML-N’s disappointment has risen considerably since the appointment of Salmaan Taseer as the new governor of the Punjab. A former PPP stalwart, Taseer is a known basher of the Sharif family and is on excellent terms with General Musharraf. More important is the big bundle of constitutional amendments that the PPP has produced and distributed among all the political parties in the name of reforming the system.

“The constitutional package has 82 points, and some of them are likely to be hotly contested. It is impossible to bring all the parties to the table on this document and then to muster a two-thirds majority in both the National Assembly and the Senate separately. This is a classic stonewalling gimmick. It is akin to the 17th Amendment which triggered off a debate in the media and in the parliament for months on end, distracting the nation from the main issue of General Musharraf’s dictatorship. We are seeing a repeat of that in 2008,” said a PML-N leader who was present at the meeting where the constitutional package was delivered to Mian Nawaz Sharif by PPP representatives.

ppp-2-june08The PPP, of course, denies that it is manipulating constitutional matters to delay critical decisions on General Musharraf and the deposed judges of the Supreme Court. But in private, party leaders point to two important considerations for not drawing the battle lines against the president. The first is that the United States continues to veto get-Musharraf plans and secondly, Zardari is not convinced that the army under General Pervez Kayani has completely withdrawn its support from their doddering former chief.

“The army gets rid of the civilian leaders in a flash and has no problem in trampling upon the law and the constitution. If they think Musharraf is bad for the country, why don’t they bustle him out? Why do they want us to close a problem that they have created? Why should we end up in confrontation with the US and in the thick soup of turmoil by ringing Musharraf’s neck,” said an angry PPP ambassador-designate to an important western country.

This view is reinforced by repeated leaks in the press about meetings between the Chief of Army Staff General Kayani and his former boss, suggesting coordination and a friction-free relationship. The presidential camp has also been active in nurturing this ‘all for one’ impression. In one dinner meeting, General Musharraf borrowed a cigarette from General Kayani and laughingly said, “I smoke because of him.”

The PPP’s cautious stance, bordering on paralysis, is seemingly steeped in the uncertainty regarding the extent to which the army would go along with them if they agree to become part of the final assault on Musharraf. But an increasingly popular mood is trashing this argument. Brutal critiques of Musharraf are pouring from every corner of public opinion. As if newspaper columns and TV talk shows were not enough, bodies like the Ex-Servicemen’s Group, which includes sepoys and generals alike, have joined the chorus of “Go Musharraf, Go.” To top it all, Pakistan’s controversial nuclear scientist, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, has somehow broken through the official ban on his public utterances and has launched the bitterest attack yet on Musharraf, accusing him of betraying the national interest and cheating the nation.

“If this doesn’t provide the environment for taking down Musharraf, I don’t know what will,” says a PML-N leader.

But even more important is the question of how Musharraf’s fall is going to contribute to good governance. There is no link between the restoration of the judges, or Musharraf’s departure and a tightly-run government, and yet it is almost as if the two are feeding off each other. While Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani has tried to cultivate the image of a doer, cruel comparisons with Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, PML-Q’s do-nothing prime minister, are becoming rife in Islamabad’s heartless drawing-rooms. Statistics are a measure of stasis. For 40 ministerial posts, there are only 15 ministers; all the 45 standing committees of the National Assembly, an important tool of a functioning parliamentary system, are yet to be formed. None of the parliamentary secretaries have been appointed. Policy-making is ad hoc at best, confusing at worst. Every decision has to be routed through the Zardari House, which has become a beehive of job-hunters, punters and court-jesters.

Federal secretaries, who form the crucial steel-frame of executive authority, are a bamboozled lot. They get more orders from Zardari House than the prime minister’s secretariat, and do not know how to say no to a formidable yet unofficial authority. Says an insider: “At least half a dozen people have come to me asking for recommendations of names of people who could be appointed as heads of corporations and even shifted to new posts as federal secretaries. And when I ask the visitors what they have got to do with these appointments, they say ‘Asif sahib has promised to implement my recommendations. All it requires is a couple of names on a piece of paper and it shall be done.’”

The economic advisory committee, which is helping the government form budget proposals, is an odd mix of rich men, young economists and powerful lobbyists. Tragically, while the grimmest challenge that the country is faced with centres around the agriculture sector, the committee does not have a single individual representing Pakistan’s troubled green-acres. When a well-wisher, who did not want to be named, pointed this omission out to Zardari, his response was, “I am the agriculturalist, who else do you need.”

Such glibness may fill the awkward slot meant for a more substantive answer, but it changes nothing on the ground. With the protesting lawyers on the streets, a scheming Musharraf in the Presidency and the tough challenge of governance remaining unmet, the PPP leadership is facing an existential political threat — and the country, the prospect of more instability.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.