Friday, March 14, 2008

Of Declarations, Restorations and Premiership Aspirations

The victorious parties have acted prudently thus far in the post-election scenario. They must not squander the opportunity the nation has given them in the days to come.

Ammar Rashid

Now that the smoke has cleared from the results of the Feb 18th polls, it is time to assess the nation’s future as it appears from here. The picture certainly appears brighter than before; The King’s men defeated, the opposition victorious and united, the Lawyers’ High Command released and the President (with Peerzada and Qayyum, forever loyal, by his side) backed into the tightest of corners. How the Mighty hath fallen indeed.

The February 18 election may well turn out to be a landmark in our nation’s chequered history, as the harbinger of a new era of democracy and stability, elements missing almost entirely from our political landscape for years. The remarkable sagacity and political maturity on display from the erstwhile political enemies, Sharif and Zardari, in the post-election scenario has also come as quite a surprise. The PPP and PML-N, as the two majority parties, stand united in their commitment to the restoration of the judiciary, the supremacy of the parliament and the choice of diplomacy over military action against the militants in the north. The Murree Declaration has put onto paper what political pundits had been expressing doubt about since the election; the commitment of the leading parties to their election manifestos, their tenacity in the face of blatant foreign interference and their ability to resolve their outstanding differences. The parties have pledged to restore the ousted judges within 30 days of the convening of the National Assembly, participate in each others governments in the Centre and the Punjab, and remove the sweeping powers of the President accorded to him by the contentious Article 58-2 (b). All very noble and worthy ambitions, to be sure; serious obstacles, however, remain to be cleared for their culmination.

In the Presidential camp, the mood is terse and seemingly ripe for confrontation, notwithstanding the rather delusional statements on offer about ‘establishing a working relationship with the parliament for the next five years.’ The legal aides to the sulking President continue to scoff at the possibility of the reinstatement of the judiciary by a parliamentary resolution, terming the notion as ‘unconstitutional’ and claiming the restoration can only be brought about by an amendment in the constitution, for which a 2/3rds majority is required. These same aides continue to assert the primacy and constitutionality of the abrogation of the constitution and ouster of the judges on the 3rd of November. In the event of the threatened parliamentary resolution taking form, it is, therefore, likely that the executive will take recourse to the puppet PCO-Supreme Court to have the resolution declared illegal.

That such aides could prompt the embattled President to dismiss the elected Assembly – possibly his last available option - before it can make the crucial decision is an unsettling but remote prospect. In doing so, the President would, in essence, be laying waste to the nation’s mandate, which he so proudly claims to have brought to fruition himself (even though he continues to ignore its rather obvious implications for his rule). Moreover, he would require the wholehearted support of the Army for such a maniacal intervention; something he cannot be so sure of anymore.

The Lawyers’ Movement, now into its second year, has remained resolute in its unwillingness to accept any compromise on the judges’ restoration. Seeing their goal finally within reach, they will not hesitate to take the winning parties to task if they see them wavering. Their leaders have been released and are campaigning in full flow; the recent shows of strength in Lahore and Karachi proved that the judges’ issue is alive and well, in the country’s consciousness as well as in the streets. The lawyers’ stance is clear; even a parliamentary resolution is not required, a mere executive order will suffice for the judges’ restoration. As Aitzaz asserted recently, the Army House would be besieged in the event of the Presidency trying to sabotage the political efforts of the winning parties.

It is possible that the biggest threat to the winning parties’ agenda could come, not from the presidential camp, but from within their own ranks. The choice of the PPP’s candidate for premiership has become a bone of contention within the party’s leadership that could create a possible rift within its upper echelons. While it seemed certain that Makhdoom Amin Fahim would get the post earlier, his prospects appear to be growing bleaker by the day. Rumors abound regarding his ties with the President, leading some in the PML-N to voice their mistrust of the Pir from Hala. Moreover, Asif Zardari’s personal premiership aspirations appear to be influencing his proclivities towards appointing a lesser political personality, such as Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar as the temporary PM, to pave the way for his ascent to the throne in the upcoming by-elections. The ramifications of such a decision could be immense and costly.

The possibility of Amin Fahim leading a breakaway faction away from the main body of the PPP could spell the end of the winning parties’ parliamentary aspirations, cloud the political future of the PPP and generate much jubilation in the Presidency. Although the Makhdoom has denied any such plans, it is a possibility that the leadership of the PPP and PML-N must carefully guard against if they wish to achieve their stated aims of strengthening democracy and delivering the country from the throes of military dictatorship. Mr. Zardari, in particular, must realize that his newfound popularity will not survive the test of time if he cannot shelve his personal ambitions for the sake of the country.

The problems that await the winning parties upon the formation of government are immense. The economy has been reduced to tatters, the deprivation of the masses is at an all-time high, the ravages of the war of terror have found their way to the core of the civilian populace and the federation’s unity stands threatened. The pre-requisites of a progressive democratic order need to be established without delay in order to move towards the resolution of our many crises.

But first things first; let’s get the judges back in their courts.

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