Civil Society and Political Parties — Parallel Paths
By Shireen M Mazari
Increasingly, the protesting segments of civil society and the political parties seem to be moving on parallel paths. It is unfortunate that the political parties, at the end of the day, chose to effectively pay mere lip service to the demands of civil society, protesting lawyers and the gagged media for the restoration of the pre-November 3 situation in the country with regard to the judiciary and the media.
It is not simply an issue of whether or not the parties should have boycotted the electoral process -- and such a strategy could only have had a measure of effectiveness if all the major parties had been willing to adopt this strategy. The larger issue is the total lack of responsiveness of the mainstream political parties to show any move away from their traditional politicking -- manifesto declarations notwithstanding. In fact, never before has the disconnect between the politicians and civil society been as clearly illustrated as now.
Just when segments of civil society were awakening to a new political activism in the urban centers, the 9,000 electoral candidates and their leaders moved on to their traditional electoral role-playing with candidates moving easily from one party to another simply to improve their electoral chances -- or to get a party endorsement.
Despite negative rhetoric from the leaders, no one is uncomfortable with the fact that a PML-Q associate can move on to the PML-N or the PPP or vice versa. Even those who had been targeted by a party have now been accepted in its folds without any qualms. Such is our political environment, especially around election time.
The dilemma now for the protesting civil society is where to move to in terms of furthering their commitments in terms of democracy and freedom. Simply boycotting the electoral process will not achieve much. An opportunity has been missed by not putting up alternate candidates in case the present scenario emerged where the major players were not going to boycott the elections.
There are also rumblings within the ranks of lawyers and not all are happy with the boycott movement it would appear. As for the commitment of the contesting parties to the establishment of an independent judiciary, while the Sharifs continue to maintain some credibility on this count, Ms Bhutto has changed her tune over the last few weeks and her declaration that not only was the pre-November 3 judiciary not independent but that judges come and go and if any judge wants to "do politics" -- whatever she means by that -- he should set up a political party (why could she not invite him to join her or another existing party?) shows her stance on an independent judiciary! Let us not be fooled. Ms Bhutto has come back into politics on a deal whereby her past corruption will be forgiven so having come on such a major compromise she is now going to be the epitome of compromises, especially in terms of bowing to US agendas and diktat. Kamran Shafi has already documented her shifting stance on the judiciary in that context.
Coming back to civil society's political activism, its limitations have been shown in the Pakistani political context. First, if one wants to impact political change, one cannot do it from outside the system. So, there are two paths that must be adopted simultaneously.
* The first is to seek a political entry point either by joining existing parties in order to alter their workings or by coalescing under a new party with a new fresh leadership. The entry into existing parties will not alter their leadership or agendas unless the intrusions are in exceptionally large numbers and also involve more activism from rural constituencies. Forming a new party is an option that requires time and dedication but if the present activism can be harnessed and professionalism adopted, then civil society can work towards the next elections -- whenever they are held. At the same time it can begin grassroots work in the rural areas also. The movements begun in the cities need to be taken to the countryside and agendas expanded to respond to the major issues in the rural areas.
* The second is to coalesce a public-service political organization that prepares data on issues for public dissemination and for the elected politicians. After all, at the end of the day it is agendas that need to be influenced so there has to be interaction between the body of elected representatives -- regardless of the merits or otherwise of the elections themselves -- and civil society, especially an informed and proactive civil society.
This is not to say that continuing the protest against the gagging of the media and in support of an independent judiciary should come to an end. Not at all since the protests are the base on which activism has to be built. But protests now in themselves have been shown to be inadequate in the face of political opportunism. That is why there is a need to move beyond and think of the long term. In order to establish a truly democratic and strong institutional structure for the nation, a long-term effort is required. Protesting civil society has to be committed to work for the long haul. As for the lawyers' movement, there is a dilemma here also. After all, many poor and innocent citizens have legal cases that need to be brought to a closure. So while at one level boycott of the PCO-swearing judges of the superior courts reflects a commitment to the judicial cause for which the lawyers have suffered often with their life and limb, at some stage the needs of those seeking legal redress for their multiple disputes also needs to be taken into account -- no matter how poor in quality and how corrupt that legal path may be in the present environment.
Meanwhile, the shenanigans of the electoral process is disheartening for the many ordinary members of civil society who chose to stand up and be counted for the cause of the judiciary and freedom of the media. After all, look at the contestants: the same names; the same faces in all the parties; and the same games, especially in the rural constituencies. Where new faces have come, they reflect opportunism as in some of the women seat nominees of the PPP; and already even within the party there is disquietude. Some old hands, who are experienced at party-hopping with ease, are waiting in the wings to rob and decimate this poor nation once again. So it is going to be the same old routine that we have seen so many times before.
But this road to disillusionment is what those opposing civil society activism are counting on. That is why it is important to keep the faith and chart a new direction for the future so that the protest is cemented into something more concrete. Even now there are small developments that show a ray of hope, like the Christian lady who is contesting on an independent ticket from Islamabad. As for the elections overall, the parties participating are themselves making a mockery of it all by shouting out that the elections are already rigged. If that be the case, why are they participating? Could it be the lures of the exchequer at the end of the electoral victory? Clearly in Pakistan the more things seemingly change, the more they actually remain the same. Now is the time for us to change our fate -- and this must be by our own efforts not by externally dictated agendas.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Courtesy The News)