The mood of the moment - Amir Zia

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Pakistan’s mainstream political leadership appears edgy these days. All of a sudden many politicians seem to have had a revelation that a conspiracy is being hatched to derail the country’s ever-troubled democratic system.

Stalwarts belonging to the ruling coalition as well as the key opposition parties are apprehensive about the future of democracy, despite the fact that the elected government appears set to achieve the rare milestone of completing a five-year term in office. Still, nerves are shaky on both sides of the political divide.

From Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf to the main opposition leader Mian Nawaz Sharif – everyone is trying to send out a single message to the concerned quarters that, despite differences and the exorbitant premium the country paid for keeping this democratic dispensation, political parties won’t allow the system to get derailed ahead of the general elections due sometime later this year.

Is it the oddball called Dr Tahirul Qadri who now apparently threatens the country’s traditional political order, causing nervousness among aspirants for the prime minister’s slot? This maverick Barelvi cleric-cum-politician has effectively highlighted and underlined flaws of the current democratic order, its corruption, its inability to govern, failure to establish rule of the law, curb violence and protect even the life of the common man.

Dr Qadri has been hitting the right chords and articulating many of the pressing life and death issues that confront the masses. No wonder the traditional political forces, with stakes in the system, see his plans of staging a ‘long march’ to Islamabad on January 14 and threat to muster millions of people there an attempt to sabotage the coming elections and stop them from making another bid to assume power.

Whether Qadri’s planned rally will prove a real game-changer or just a bubble and a footnote in history remains in the realm of speculations as the countdown to his January 14 show begins. But the uncertainty about democracy’s future continues to haunt the national narrative and rumours about postponement of elections and installation of a new unelected setup for a longer duration refuse to die.

Many try to read something for the future from the shifting stands and high wire aerobics of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which wants to change the system by joining Qadri’s bandwagon but, at the same time, is unwavering in its support to the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP)-led coalition in which it remains a snug partner.

While most other major political parties remain on the front foot, criticising Qadri and his plans, the country’s powerful institutions have been quick to distance themselves from plans to transform Islamabad into a La-Pakistan Tahrir Square.

The unusual statement of the army spokesperson categorically denied that Qadri, in any way, enjoys the mighty institution’s support. The superior judiciary also gave reassuring statements that the days of undemocratic changes are now over. Even our good friends, the Americans, said that Washington wants free and fair elections in Pakistan and does not support any individual or party. However, these statements failed to calm nerves and put rumours at rest about a looming change in the country’s political landscape.

As the government drags its feet in announcing election dates, scepticism remains the order of the day in this land of the pure. However, Qadri – the ultimate villain or saviour – is seen more as an instrument for change rather than a serious long-term political player and a contender for power by the forces entrenched in the system.

The supposed role carved out for Qadri and his Tehreek-e-Minhajul Quran (TMQ) remains more of a spoiler that could pave way for the ‘other’ forces to eventually intervene and open a new chapter by pulling down the curtain on the current one.

While the very thought of derailment of democracy sends shivers down the spines of the pious and the politically correct, there remain serious and legitimate concerns about the ability and capacity of state institutions to hold free, fair and transparent elections in the current state of lawlessness, chaos and disorder.

First, the terrorist threat has intensified in the last few years, making it impossible for liberal and secular political forces to openly conduct election campaigns in many parts of the country. Their leaders and candidates remain easy targets for the Al-Qaeda-inspired local terrorist groups, though Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf and other major religious parties are not on the hit-list of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that has systematically been eliminating its rivals.

Then there are simmering ethnic tensions in urban Sindh and parts of Balochistan that are all set to make the coming elections bloodier than they have been ever before.

The thorny task of the delimitation of constituencies in urban Sindh and preparing error-free voters’ list also remain unsettled issues and are all set to create more complications in the coming days.

The near collapse of the administration and governance in the country also raises serious doubts about the ability of the election commission and other state institutions to hold a free and fair electoral exercise, even according to third world or Pakistani standards.

The very prospect of the return of the same set of corrupt and incompetent ruling elite – dominated by feudal lords, tribal chiefs and super rich industrialists and businesspeople to the national and provincial assemblies – offers a nightmarish scenario for the country, which faces existential internal threats from extremists and terrorist forces as well as grave economic challenges.

For many Pakistanis, ‘democracy for the sake of democracy’ does not seem to be an appealing idea. A flawed and dysfunctional democratic order that fails to address and resolve internal contradictions or offer any tangible solutions to the current set of challenges hardly inspires confidence.

The rot that grips today’s Pakistan is the manifestation of the sad performance of the current parliament and the elected government. It is also true that any extra-constitutional and engineered changes, as witnessed many times in the past and so passionately desired by some in all earnestness, too have equally gone astray, contributing to the mess in which the country finds itself now.

If you ask a common, hardworking and honest urban or rural Pakistani (yes they are still a sizeable number), you will be told that above all else they crave for peace, stability and rule of law in the country.

Once any ruler – elected or unelected – fulfils these three prerequisites for economic development, progress and prosperity, the people will be able to do the rest. The people want a radical change in the manner in which the country is being ruled and governed right now. The current state of affairs is unacceptable to them. It won’t work anymore now. That is the bottom line.

The majority of Pakistanis will welcome any change that will take the country out of the clutches of this feudal and tribal democracy, which is corrupt, incompetent and anti-people to its core. The current ruling elite, or the so-called elected representatives, have been tried and tested time and again and always been found wanting. Their magic has waned. They simply can’t deliver.

In that sense, Dr Qadri and others like him, who demand sweeping reforms, are likely to touch the hearts of many. They might not reap the benefits of their actions, but if they manage to upset the applecart and unleash a popular wave demanding strict accountability and rule of the law, it would be an innings well played.

The rest one should leave to the dynamics of popular politics, which will take its own evolutionary course and is never ideal.

The writer is editor The News, Karachi.

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