By Beena Sarwar
PRESIDENT Pervez Musharraf’s appointment of businessman and media tycoon Salman Taseer — his friend and a former PPP parliamentarian — as governor, Punjab, set off howls of protest from the PPP’s chief coalition partner, PML-N, as well as from what some arbitrarily call ‘civil society’ and others term the ‘chattering classes’.
The controversial appointment followed the PML-N announcement that its federal ministers were resigning because the pre-Nov 3, 2007, judiciary had not been restored by the May 12 deadline announced after the Murree Declaration.More important than this deadline though, was the PML-N and PPP’s agreement that the judiciary must be restored. This is a goal that the two parties agree upon and it is significant for their continuing coalition. Their differences arise in the modalities. Nawaz Sharif wants a dramatic political gesture, an executive order that underscores his stated commitment to the cause while Asif Ali Zardari, embittered by his own experiences at the hands of some of these judges, wants a constitutional package that strengthens the institution — as envisaged by the proposed 18th Constitution Amendment Bill.
The Murree Declaration itself was greeted with the incredulity reminiscent of the amazement that followed an earlier pact between the PPP and PML-N: the Charter of Democracy of May 14, 2006, signed in London by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, envisaging a joint struggle to rid the country of military rule. The second significant point for the coalition is that the two major parties realise the importance of ending the military’s interference in politics.
There are powerful forces at work playing up their differences and trying to drive a wedge between them. These include western powers like the US and the UK who are more comfortable with their man Musharraf and the PML-Q, than the wild card PML-N. Also ranged against the coalition are the Pakistani ‘establishment’ and its allies in the media where speculation is often presented as news. Together, these forces keep pushing the PPP towards the president and his ‘Q’ League.Zardari appears to be merrily playing into their hands, letting two deadlines lapse without restoring the judges and appointing non-elected persons to positions of power. And then he showed Sharif the proverbial stick with the Taseer appointment (the president reportedly rejected the other nominees).
The PML-N had until now been riding high, feasting on carrots in the high-stakes Punjab province where it remains in government as the senior coalition partner and has made thousands of transfers and postings. But the coalition remains intact as the PML-N remains on the treasury benches rather than the opposition in the National Assembly.The game of politics continues with Zardari requesting the prime minister not to accept the federal minister resignations and asking Taseer to curb his anti-Nawaz rhetoric. The third significant point about the coalition is that the PML-N needs it as much as the PPP does.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, reiterating that the deposed judges will be restored as soon as the modalities are worked out, termed the Pakistani people as ‘mature, intelligent and patient’, wanting ‘to give the government time’. He may well be correct but for most people, sky-rocketing prices are the most pressing issues and the description sounds like wishful thinking when it comes to ‘civil society’ and the lawyers.Certainly, pressure must be maintained on the government to fulfil its promises but grand rhetoric, dramatic gestures and street agitations will only endanger the coalition. This will make the PML-Q very happy as well as the foreign and domestic powers who want Zardari to join hands with Musharraf and the Q League.
In this situation, the All Pakistan Democratic Movement’s announcement of a national moot on June 1 to strategise about the government’s ‘failure to restore the deposed judiciary’ appears provocative and premature. What is needed at this juncture is a little more patience. It is unrealistic to expect that a mess which was in the making for years will be satisfactorily resolved within a couple of months.
Had the PPP not agreed to a deadline the PML-N would not have joined the federal cabinet to share its burden. The PML-N may privately hope for mid-term polls, but has commendably taken the public position of supporting the government and saying it should complete its tenure. After all, going along with the PPP pressure has proved beneficial before, since Benazir Bhutto convinced Nawaz Sharif to contest the elections instead of boycotting them.
Zardari has a tough act to follow. Thrown into the deep end by Benazir Bhutto’s murder, he does not have her experience, stature or statesmanship (her detractors maintain that she herself lacked the last two). He demonstrated flexibility and sagacity after her assassination, countering the slogans of ‘Pakistan na khapey’ and keeping the party together. He proved central in cobbling together a coalition government, countering the establishment’s old machinations of dividing the politicians and confounding critics who couldn’t even envisage a Sharif-Zardari alliance.
Persistent rumours about Zardari’s prime ministerial or presidential ambitions are still unfounded. Perceptions that the National Reconciliation Ordinance provides a cover to corruption persist even in cases that have nothing to do with the NRO. In any case, with the PPP in power, the Ordinance is irrelevant since the cases it waived were instituted by the government of the time.In the current fraught political atmosphere, a bit of breathing space to the main coalition partners may have long-term benefits. It is worth bearing in mind a plea Zardari made to a group of journalists, lawyers, artists and writers visiting Naudero to condole with him soon after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. “If we slip up and make mistakes, please be patient with us,” he said. “We are dancing on broken glass.”