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Tracking a power shift

If the get-Zardari campaign succeeds,what would be the political fallout in Pakistan?

Written by Ejaz Haider |
November 24, 2009 4:34:44 am

The primer says lying is awful; it also says corruption is bad. Primers are about the Garden of Eden before the forbidden fruit was eaten. Life is more complex when it is lived and wickedly complex when lived in very large,multi-interest groups. That’s what Reinhold Niebuhr theorised about in his Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics.

The debate in Pakistan about the National Reconciliation Ordinance — the device which former General-President Pervez Musharraf employed to streamline the transition to the next political phase and make way for the return of Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari by clearing them of any legal cases — takes the primer approach. The deep irony though is that those who are using the NRO stick to beat President Zardari,and by extension the PPP,are doing it for complex and not very ethical motives!

The primer is in the hands of those who know life is complex and wicked. Their invocation of simplicity,that corruption must be punished,is therefore suspect.

That Zardari doesn’t have a past that inspires confidence in him or his leadership is a statement of the obvious. Neither has governance since he took over as president been up to the mark. This is not to say that there are no achievements. In fact,stitching together a deal on the National Finance Commission Award among the federating units is a feat.

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But when a government must be pulled down it makes sense to pick up what is not good rather than what is; and the task becomes easier when the list of what is not good is way longer than what is.

Moreover,it helps if the government is stupid enough to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory,as happened with the Kerry-Lugar controversy. In today’s Pakistan where the camera follows every move right into the loo,governments can’t afford to lose the initiative. In the case of KL kill-bill,the government had been warned much earlier in the game by observers that the language would become a problem. But it did nothing to start a debate on the issue and the detractors struck just when it was preparing to drink to victory.

The NRO was even easier to exploit: it was put in place by the “hated” Musharraf; it allowed the “ill-reputed” Zardari to return and become the president and perpetrate the Musharraf-ian system; it prevented Zardari from restoring the chief justice of Pakistan,known for his judicial activism; it serves,as the argument goes,to legitimise corruption; it discriminates in favour of a class; the “new” Pakistan cannot afford to have the dagger of such device embedded in its body politic.

The PMLN and the media got into the game,choreographed,as observers have noted,by the establishment,a term bandied about but never fully defined. For the PMLN it was easy. Most cases cleared under the NRO were instituted during Nawaz Sharif’s time which is why now that the list is out,the PMLN and its then-allied parties have come out of the exercise smelling like roses. The PPP and the MQM look like the villains and,given there are only 34 politicos in a list upwards of 8000,the bureaucracy looks the worst.

All this done to isolate and kick out Zardari. Regardless of the man’s weaknesses,and there are many,the issue really is this: the combination of political parties,sections of the media and the shadowy establishment is not doing this to cure Pakistan of corruption but to get Zardari.

While that does not take away the imperative of having a clean system,it does force any discerning observer to sit back and determine the consequences of this campaign. The PPP,despite shooting itself in the foot repeatedly,remains the only party with a federal presence. Even the PMLN,today the most popular party,cannot claim that position. What would happen to the federation if the party is damaged?

In the heat of the moment,when the primer is made to look supreme and complexities are deliberately set aside,no one is prepared to ask or answer this question and,ironically,the media least of all.

Allied with this question is another one: is there need to address the issue of corruption in a way that is more institutionally streamlined and less politically motivated? The simple answer is yes. The more difficult part is how to go about it. Some jurists have pointed to this and stressed the need to revisit the badly framed National Accountability Bureau Ordinance,incidentally another device discriminating against a class.

Doing so of course requires non-partisan,juridical work. The fulminations against the NRO are a function of political partisanship. The PPP tried to push it through parliament but sensing trouble decided not to; sensible but belated. Its actions were by then determined to be politically motivated and Zardari-specific. There are already petitions in the Supreme Court challenging the NRO. Everyone in Pakistan knows how they would be adjudicated upon. Legal and moral simplicity would trump political complexities.

So,is Zardari on his way out? Not necessarily. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has conducted himself well in being a bridge between the presidency and the rest. Zardari has understood that he needs to relinquish power in favour of his prime minister who remains his subordinate within the party. That is how it should have been from the word go. For the PPP to stay strong,Zardari should have let Gilani be the centre of gravity of the government.

Much now would depend on how Sharif plays his cards. The positive signal from him is that he has realised that with Zardari out,he would not be in. Minus one could then be minus two or even three. The talk about the Bangladesh model,a long-duration caretaker government of technocrats supported by the military and with the judiciary entrusted with cleansing the system,scares every politico. Sharif’s latest statement that he would not support any minus-one formula reflects that.

Even so,the two major parties need to stitch their differences fast. Some people say the joker in the pack is the SC which could take up the issue of Zardari’s qualification to be president. The key issue in this case is whether the NRO was valid only for a total period of four months or until four months from the SC’s decision on July 31.

The SC has given very conflicting views on this but its earlier short order seemed to suggest that all PCO ordinances would be valid till July 31 plus four months. This becomes important because all benefits extended to Zardari are post-original four-month period.

If this comes to pass it could be a game-changer. The caveat is that there are precedents by the SC that if qualification for office has not been challenged at the original forum (returning officer or the election commission),it cannot be taken up subsequently at another legal forum.

Be that as it may,if the get-Zardari campaign does succeed through the invocation of a primer-based approach to moral outrage against corruption,there could be serious political ramifications.

The writer is consulting editor at ‘The Friday Times’,Lahore

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