After much speculation and rumour-mongering, the National Assembly has chosen a new prime minister. The choice came as a surprise. Raja Pervez Ashraf was not known as the best of ministers; his record as a minister for water and power was not enviable. This is why a cross section of people have criticised the choice made by the PPP. Why would the party further ruin its image in the election year? Perhaps, Raja is easy to sacrifice. Having said that, the media histrionics of calling the new prime minister ‘Raja Rental’ is unfortunate. It undermines the rule of law as the NAB inquiry against the new prime minister is still underway.
The nomination of Makhdum Shahabuddin, the top choice for the prime ministerial slot, was scuttled by the issuance of a timely arrest warrant by the ANF. It seems that the judiciary has a clear stance on the PPP government and the security establishment is also not on the latter’s side.
How serious is this putsch? This is not the first time that such a situation has risen. At least four such moves were made in the recent past. At the time of the judges’ restoration in 2009, the country reached a tipping point and the last minute retreat by all those concerned allowed for the continuation of the system. Second, when the Kerry-Lugar legislation was passed in the US, the civilian government was curiously declared as the initiator and author of the bill and a massive propaganda campaign was launched against it. Gradually, the parties concerned retreated. In the aftermath of the court verdict on the National Reconciliation Ordinance, the continuation of the civilian government was in question but did not take place. Finally, the last major attempt was to implicate the president in the alleged unsigned memo appealing to the US for helping gain civilian control of governance. Pakistan’s ambassador to the US was sacrificed in reaching a settlement and the plan was abandoned.
Three fundamental realities have somehow helped the PPP sail through the past four years. Firstly, the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has been unwilling to rock the system. He has understood that his own political fortunes rest on the continuation of the electoral process. Second, the effective check of the media and the courts against extraconstitutional options has reinforced the general lack of appetite for a military regime after a decade under Musharraf. Finally, the international and regional opinion is also clear: most of Pakistan’s friends, allies and neighbours have been keen on seeing civilian control of institutions and have supported its nascent democracy.
The disqualification of an elected PM, however, is the first serious blow to the PPP government. Its earlier complacency to complete its tenure and hold the elections under its control now stands challenged. Whether the current standoff with the unelected arms of the state will result in a truncation of the democratic process, as is feared by some, remains to be seen. The new prime minister is most likely to uphold the party’s position and not comply with the SC’s directives. This will lead to another ouster and perhaps will push the country towards a situation where elections and caretaker arrangements will be required.
Mian Nawaz Sharif would like an early election and is not likely to accept any other alternative. Hence, the creation of a caretakers’ government beyond three months is an unfeasible option. As for the outside world, it views Pakistan’s infighting as worrisome. Washington is getting increasingly jingoistic and even reasonable people there are asking for punitive action.
Pakistan’s civil-military power players need to appreciate the gravity of the situation. They must renegotiate the terms on which the new elections will be held. They should also not be tempted by a repeat of the 1990s when democracy was turned into a sham by repeated palace intrigues and dubious electoral arrangements. The country needs to move on.
The civilian government, at best, has six months before it’s time for election. Let the people judge the performance of the PPP and its allies and boot them out of power if they haven’t delivered. Neither the military, nor the judiciary can do this under the Constitution.
Published In The Express Tribune, June 24th, 2012.
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