Most observers of the rapid evolution of Pakistan’s political order called the June 5 swearing-in of Mian Nawaz Sharif as prime minister a historical moment. It was historic not because Sharif took office for an unparalleled third term. What was most heartening was the fact that an elected government was able to complete its full five-year term in office. The elections held on May 11 set the stage for the peaceful transfer of power from a coalition administration dominated by the PPP to a government that will be run by the PML-N. The prime minister’s party had won enough seats in the national assembly to manage without the support of any other political group.
But there were other reasons why history was made on June 5. The transfer of power that took place was from an all-powerful president who had governed without constitutional authority to a prime minister who promised to be fully responsible to the elected parliament. There was considerable significance of this transfer for Pakistan’s political development. For most of Pakistan’s nearly 66-year history, the country was ruled by leaders who were predisposed towards authoritarianism. That was to be expected of the four military presidents who held power for a total of 32 years, a bit less than one-half of Pakistan’s history as an independent state. Even when the civilians ruled, they continued the practice of ‘strong-man’ rule, often exercising authority that went beyond that permitted by the Constitution. The man who set that tradition was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the author of the 1973 Constitution.
From some of the early signals that Prime Minister Sharif sent out, it appears that he is likely to seek cooperation not only from his cabinet but also from other parties, some of which have a significant presence in the provincial assembles. He showed statesmanship in letting Imran Khan’s PTI and the Baloch-dominated National Party to manage the administrations of the provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan respectively. He could have made a play for power even in these provinces but chose to let the smaller parties rule with the help of broad coalitions.
With so much power concentrated in the hands of the president during the Zardari period, the economy was managed individualistically rather than collectively. Most important appointments were made by the president who chose his friends and cronies to manage important state-owned enterprises and regulatory agencies. This resulted in enormous amounts of corruption and mismanagement of public funds. The severe energy shortage that took a heavy toll on the economy was partly the result of rampant corruption that affected the entire electricity system. State-owned enterprises such as PIA, the Railways, and the Pakistan Steel Mills were driven towards bankruptcy. They were frequently bailed out by the government, increasing the burden on the already stretched budget. They were used as the ‘employers of first resort’ to provide jobs to relatives, friends and party workers. The country paid a heavy economic price for these misdeeds and eventually it cost the PPP the election. The promise of good governance and control on corruption was the main reason why almost 60 per cent of the electorate voted, 20 percentage points more than what was the norm for the country. The people were desperate for change and it appears that they will not be disappointed.
Nawaz Sharif is likely to run a relatively clean government and will also work to better the economy rather than seek personal gratification. To prepare his first major address to the nation, he appointed a number of working groups to suggest what he should say and do once he was sworn in as prime minister. In his speech to the National Assembly after having been elected the leader of the house, he said he could not promise to quickly resolve all the problems the country faced but he vowed to promote the culture of transparency. “My government will not tolerate any form of corruption” he told the newly elected legislators as they thumped their desks in approval.
Another reason why this was a historic moment for Pakistan’s political development was that the country will have to be run as a federation of four provinces rather than managed entirely from Islamabad. The credit for bringing the federal form of governance goes to President Asif Ali Zardari who allowed the passage of the sweeping Eighteenth Amendment. It not only cleansed the basic law of the many aberrations introduced by two military leaders — Generals Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf — there were two important changes made by the amendment. It shifted the location of power from the presidency to the office of the prime minister. This move, as already indicated, was thwarted by President Zardari by continuing to hold power in his hands. He did that by dominating the PPP and appointing weak prime ministers.
The amendment also transferred numerous functions from the central government to provincial administrations. Resources needed to carry out this devolved authority were provided by the National Finance Commission Award announced in late 2009, a few months ahead of the passage of the amendment. History, in other words, was made in many different ways, not just because of the peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another. The new Pakistan will be run as a federation, by federal and provincial governments acting not on the whims of the leader but by being responsible to the elected assemblies, and by operating within legally established norms. If this comes about, history would indeed have been made.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2013.
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