Congratulations Pakistan … and Now the Issues
By Shireen M Mazari
The people of Pakistan have, given the opportunity, again sought to shift the center of gravity of the national polity to the civilian elected leaders. Once again the nation has done itself proud by going through an electoral process successfully.
Contrary to forebodings of major acts of terrorism, Election Day went off largely peacefully, although there was isolated violence and precious lives were lost. Equally important, despite the bogey of massive rigging, the results show a largely fair and free election. And, in keeping with the civil society resurgence since March 2007, the electorate showed a determination to start afresh and reject the previous incumbents because of their poor showing on issues relating not only to judicial independence and rule of law, but also on the food shortages and gas and electricity outages. That the low turnout seemed to have brought out the protest vote in large numbers was another interesting feature of these elections which saw major political figures' suffer humiliating defeats.
Perhaps the only pre-poll prediction that proved correct was that no party would show an overwhelming majority at the national level, thereby necessitating some form of a coalition government. However, the assumption, especially by Western pollsters that the PPP would lead by a clear margin, followed by a close contest between the two main PML factions proved to be incorrect as the PML-N seemed to have ridden a wave of support in the Punjab. It appears that even the PML-N itself may have been somewhat pleasantly surprised by the results!
The debate has already begun as to why primarily the PML-N gained at the expense of the PML-Q in Punjab, rather than the PPP. Many reasons are being cited, including the traditional explanation that the PML-N basically got back its old vote bank which was the traditional PPP -- anti-PPP voter divide in Punjab. Yet that is too simplistic just as it tends to insinuate a static polity -- which is certainly not the case anymore. One should also focus on the fact that the PML-N was the only major party which took a strong and unequivocal stance on the judicial issue; and in the urban areas of Punjab that stance found resonance in the voters of these constituencies -- including in Islamabad.
Whatever the final tally, the anti-Q vote was as much a vote against President Musharraf as it was against the Q League; but there had always been a mutuality of interest and support between the president and the Q League, so it makes no sense for the latter to lay the blame of their electoral wipe out solely on the shoulders of the president! Also, in many constituencies, including this writer's, it was not simply the macro level national issues like freedom of the media and judiciary that worked against the Q League candidate. Instead, it was the micro level subsistence issues and the corruption and harassment by the district nazim and his setup, that led the voters to the opponent.
Moving on, now that the elections are over, there is a need to focus on the issues the new political dispensation will have to face. Perhaps the most pressing issue is the judiciary issue and here it will be interesting to see how the PPP and the PML-N resolve their differing approaches. But it must be evident to all the elected politicians that civil society expects the restoration of an independent judiciary from the new political leaders. This is an issue that could once again bring civil society on to the streets.
As central an issue to the well being of the nation is the scourge of extremism and terrorism that is afflicting us presently. What, if any, will be the new approaches to dealing with this interlinked twin menace? Does the fact that elections were held peacefully even in the tribal belt signal a new approach on the part of the extremists or does it reflect the tribal people's intent to delink from these forces of violence and terror?
And, of course, linked to this issue is the issue of the US-led "war on terrorism". Will we continue to expend our energies in fighting this war according to the US's failed military-centric strategy or would we push forward a more holistic and indigenous strategy for fighting the terrorist threat within our midst? All this leads up to an even more central issue for the country: our relations with the US. Will we continue to willy-nilly be following US diktat as we seemed to have done even in the context of the NRO; or will we finally realize that our strategic interests over the long term do not coincide with US strategic interests? How we deal with the US requires a careful assessment of US policy towards Pakistan since 9/11and of the history of Pakistan-US relations before 9/11, so that a more viable and rational policy in this regard can be devised. We stand at a critical juncture in terms of our relations towards the US and India, and how we formulate our policies in this regard will determine our future long term regional status.
When our new political dispensation is considering Pakistan-US relations it must recall the insidious moves within the US to suggest balkanisation of Pakistan. Although the suggestions have come from US analysts, we would do well to remember that these analysts work closely with the US establishment. Even more dangerous for Pakistan have been suggestions from members of the US Congress that have targeted our nuclear assets and their safety. Will our resurgent political leadership find within itself the will to confront the US on this crucial national issue and not offer explanations about nuclear safety ad nauseum?
Coming back to domestic issues, there is the question of freedom of the media. It will be interesting to see how the new power set up deals with this issue. Will they simply go along with the restrictions imposed on the media through PEMRA or will a new age of a free media emerge once again in Pakistan? After all, what one commits to when one is in power is a trifle different to what one supports when out of power. Or are we going to find ourselves amid a new and tolerant political culture even though we are mainly circulating the same political faces all over again -- only their positioning has altered?
Another crucial issue is to examine why there have been the power and flour shortages at a time when our economy was being touted as having gone into a state of good health! In fact, there is a need to examine overall policy-making relating to the energy and agricultural sectors and expose the vested interests that have hindered development in both these sectors.
Finally, the nation has suffered much turmoil and heartache, not to mention abuse from within and outside. That is why there is a need for national reconciliation through acceptance of national diversity and "the other"; and for a friendly but resolute stance in the face of external powers. The strength of the state arises from within the nation. For too long the rulers have ignored this and looked to strengthen the state through external alliances. It has never worked, except in an illusory and fleeting manner.
Perhaps it is time we learnt the first lesson the elections have taught us: the people know what they want and, given a fair chance, will ensure that their will is asserted. Those who have ignored this basic fact have had but a brief period of triumph, only to be brought down and humiliated by the collectivity of the people. Our checkered electoral history has shown this time after time. It is time the state imbibed this basic lesson from its history.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Courtesy The News)