Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Why Musharraf must go

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

LAHORE: On February 18, Pakistanis voted against the regime of Pervez Musharraf. For more than eight years the now retired general has ruled the country with an iron fist, brooking no dissent. But when push came to shove, the Pakistani people made it clear that they would rather their country be ruled by politicians - however flawed - than an army general dancing to Washington's tune.

In the immediate aftermath of the polls, the victors - the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of late Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf ousted in his October 1999 coup - have called on Musharraf to resign. But the man who has been a Bush administration favourite is clinging on for dear life, and so long as he does, a smooth transition to democracy is unlikely.

It is perhaps difficult for observers outside Pakistan to actually understand the depth of the crisis that Musharraf's government faced in the lead-up to the polls. Even now, the worsening security situation is not the biggest problem that the regime is up against. The vote against the incumbent regime in fact was the fallout of an acute economic crisis that has beset the country.
Over the past few weeks, Pakistanis have been suffering from prolonged power outages, a major reduction in the supply of gas, and a dramatic shortage of wheat flour. The situation reached crisis-like proportions about two weeks before February 18 and while things have not deteriorated further, they have not got much better either.

This is ironic given that the regime's most celebrated success has been the 'economic revival' that it has engineered. Since October 1999 the government has initiated a series of economic 'reform' measures, which have met with the approval of the IMF and World Bank. The regime has been rewarded, particularly after the September 11 attacks in America, with massive inflows of financial assistance.

In subsequent years, foreign exchange reserves reached record levels, export earnings improved and growth rates increased to the point that Pakistan's economy was said to be the second fastest growing economy in Asia, second only to China. However, very little structural change has taken place beneath the surface. There has been no asset redistribution, the tax net has remained woefully small, and foreign investment has been limited to non-employment generating sectors such as real estate, telecommunications and the stock market.

Pakistan's has always been an aid-dependent economy that looks a lot more robust than it actually is when the aid is flowing in. In recent times, the underlying weaknesses of the regime's economic 'miracle' have become painfully apparent. There is not enough electricity and gas to meet the burgeoning demand. The need to generate foreign exchange through wheat exports has given rise to a bizarre situation in which a record bumper crop has proved insufficient in meeting internal demand.

Development spending is being cut as means of creating fiscal space. The list could go on. With the support of western governments under the guise of prosecuting the so-called 'war on terror', the regime has succeeded in suppressing political challenges to it, most obviously by dismissing activist supreme court judges and arresting thousands of democracy-demanding lawyers and political activists.

The electorate has taken revenge for these deeply unpopular measures by voting Musharraf's clients out of power, but the imperative of the 'war on terror' is seemingly too acute for Musharraf's patrons in Washington to accept the people's mandate. Notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary, the Bush administration has not played its cards in Pakistan well, or at least not well enough to win the hearts and minds of its people. The solution does not lie in dumping Musharraf and backing his successor - Pervez Kiyani - to the post of army chief. It lies in finally accepting that the Pakistani people are best equipped to decide how to address the problems that their country is beset with.

The election result should be seen as the culmination of a year-long struggle to dislodge the incumbent regime. Of course in most cases, voters reinstated many who have been in power before and in doing so have thrown down the gauntlet to the two big parties, the PPP and the PML-N. On the one hand the election result is, in many ways, a mandate for them to really take on the military. If, instead, they buckle to the demands of the army - and the United States - the many possible gains from the politicisation that has taken place over the past year will be lost.
On the other hand, serious policy changes are necessary if the coalition wants to avoid being swept away by a tidal wave of anti-government sentiment in the way that the Musharraf regime has. For example, free market orthodoxy of the kind championed by the Musharraf government is likely to subject working people to even more acute hardship whilst not necessarily achieving macroeconomic stability.

The PPP and PML-N are now immersed in a battle to maintain the goodwill they have regained by virtue of their stance against a deeply unpopular military regime. The initial period will be crucial, and the international community would do well to honour the wishes of the Pakistani people and stop backing Musharraf and the policies that have taken Pakistan to the brink of implosion.

The writer teaches colonial history and political economy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Pakistan's media - responsibility must anchor freedom

IT is a truism that media freedom in Pakistan today has been earned after a long struggle which will perhaps continue in the years to come.

Deepening of democratic traditions and their permeation in society are sine qua non for a free media. Whilst there can be no two opinions on the independence of the media, the need for greater responsibility and professionalism has to be articulated in no uncertain terms. Such is the confusion and chaos triggered by an overgrown executive that the issue of responsibility has been sidelined by the overwhelming noises for media freedom especially since the tinkering with the text and application of Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) Ordinance.
We are now getting used to a television culture that imitates the life of Pakistani tharras, chai-khanas and drawing-rooms where politics is discussed ad nauseum. Rare exceptions include issue oriented talk-shows but they appear bland unless their all knowing hosts inject some political spice into them. Expertise is taken for granted; new-age generalists judge every subject under the sun and occasionally take themselves a bit too seriously. Yes, the commercial imperative of the media dictates programming patterns. But there has to be a method to this disorderliness.

The most recent occasion of electronic media wizardry was the announcement of the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition candidate for the unenviable job of the prime minister. The moment the announcement was made, a leading channel played a popular Indian film song that lamented broken promises. In this case, the fabled promise of the prime ministerial cookie for Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

Admittedly, the party of the people and its allies were secretive about the process. The principle of transparency, ideally, is germane to elected institutions. However, this is neither an ideal world nor is it going to turn into one overnight. The way a momentous decision was trivialised was not in good taste. The news industry forgot that this was a party still recovering from the brutal murder of its omnipresent leader less than three months ago.

And then the vulnerable Makhdoom was grilled into a line of questioning by many channels anticipating that he would put the fissures within the party into the public domain. Much to their consternation, nothing of the sort came about. In fact, the icy Makhdoom, disappointed as he must be, maintained his dignity and decorum in the face of a media that desperately hoped for catchy breaking news.

Earlier, the guessing game on the PM nomination was played up into teacup hype, was also, to a certain extent, unwarranted. For instance, the delay in requisitioning the session of the National Assembly was far less analysed than why the PPP was unable to settle for Makhdoom. The discourse on the issue focused on ‘loyalty’, ‘honour’ and such other terms that may go well with the patriarchal-authoritarian society but not with the difficult task of inculcating democratic values.

Alas, the level of analysis was such that the ‘potential’ candidates were rarely compared in terms of merit, competence or likelihood of pulling together a difficult coalition. And no one bothered to check how this process was managed in the region especially India where coalitions are now a norm. Sadly, the chequered history of PPP media trials continues even when plural and relatively free voices abound.

Well, this is the beginning of a new journey. We have a mature political class that is willing to jointly challenge the historic ascendancy of non-elected institutions. This is something that is central to the future of all freedoms including that of the media. As the first speech of the prime minister proved, democracy —truncated as it might be — is the only way of ensuring the independence of the judiciary.

The release of deposed judges came about ironically through the parliament. The sweet irony of it all is that this was a scene not envisaged by those who were urging all and sundry to boycott the elections. That a president sans uniform had limits to his powers was a nuance not debated.
The channel gurus were more inclined towards the ‘purity’ of political positions. Considerable airtime was devoted to the Faustian ‘deal’ that was perhaps the last grand sin of Bhutto in the eyes of our puritans. She had of course to pay with her life for redemption.

In a similar vein, television debates on suicide bombings and war on terror reinforce the populism that endangers critical introspection, and reduces the discourse to a level that, simply put, is simplistic. We all know that the demons of extremism have been nurtured for decades. They existed prior to the American invasion of Afghanistan and our frontline status. But discussions about the slow Talibanisation of Pakistan being a reality are taboo; as the overwhelming majority of ‘experts’ consider this a ‘reaction’ thereby according a subtle legitimacy to the gruesome acts perpetrated in the name of religion.

Unwittingly, the agenda of the suicide brigades gets a helping hand when TV channels relay images of human limbs, severed heads and trucks ramming into security guards. I recall the ugly evening when bombs exploded prior to the chief justice’s arrival at a rally in Islamabad last summer. This was the first time that at least I experienced the disturbing visuals betraying lack of scrutiny. As violence is always gripping, it attracted the attention of my five-year-old and eventually we had to turn off the television.

Popular channels ran notifications urging parental guidance as if this would gloss the evident dearth of punctiliousness. However, this continued as a trend — entrenched, sensational — sadly when Pakistan was witnessing the worst spate of suicide bombings in our recent history. Chopped heads metaphorically are embedded in our histories: from the Baghdad tales of minarets out of severed heads, to Mongol invasions of Delhi and Lahore and the famed anecdote of Emperor Aurangzeb sending the head of Dara Shikoh to Shah Jahan.

But a modern, progressive Pakistan has to overcome this legacy of medieval barbarity and a free, mature media needs to assist in this process and condemn what is utterly condemnable.
Thus emerges the urgent need for self-regulation, codes of conduct and internal accountability. Let the media shun all ‘advisories’, this should be done of their own volition. Globally, there are several examples to follow and the capable ones within the media are well aware of them. There would be no point in listing them here. Suffice to say here that we, the engaged TV viewers, want a free media that is equally responsible; and challenges the stereotype and half-truth instead of reinforcing it.

A glorious future lies ahead for the electronic media — for we have a powerful agent of change, when we had almost given up on the hope for a change.
First published in DAWN on March 31, 2008.

People's Resistance condemns assault on Dr. Riaz

KARACHI, April 1: The People's Resistance, a coalition of pro-democracy individuals and groups, joins organisations like HRCP, AHRC and others in strongly condemning and demanding immediate inquiry into the manhandling and beating up of Dr Riaz Ahmed, Assistant Professor of Applied Chemistry at Karachi University by Pakistan Rangers.

On Monday, March 31, Dr Riaz attempted to drive out of the campus from the Silver Jubilee gate. Rangers deployed in the campus had closed all entry and exit gates following a clash between two student groups and refused to open the gate for Dr Riaz's car. After some harsh words they dragged him out of the car, abused him, kicked him with their boots, and severely beat him with their fists, batons and rifle butts. They dragged up to two meters in the presence of their Commandant Colonel Iftekhar. Students who tried to protect Dr Riaz were also injured. Some teachers and students took the injured professor to the Aga Khan Hospital where a medico-legal exam was carried out.

At a time when the new government has announced the welcome step of reviving student unions and our politics are hopefully being de-militarised, with the military going back to the barracks, it is also time to remove para-military forces from our educational institutes. It should be noted that Dr. Riaz was among the university professors and staff who have consistently opposed the deployment of Rangers at the university, since the ban on student unions in the 1980s. The Rangers' deployment at KU has not only made the security situation worse at the institution, but also resulted in a disruption of the academic atmosphere.

Some months ago, Dr Riaz had berated the Rangers for kicking students' book-bags; one of the Rangers involved in that incident was among the four who maltreated him yesterday. We condemn the continuing presence of para-military forces in our educational institutes and demand that the Vice Chancellor play his due role in upholding principles rather than continuing to make compromises with anti-democratic forces. We demand:

- An immediate, full-scale and high level inquiry into the incident

- Removal of Rangers from university

- The registration of an FIR against the Rangers involved in brutalising the Karachi University professor and the due process of law to punish the culprits.