Is hurting Imran good for democracy in Pakistan?

In our little republic [of Pakistan] we might not have free food, but we sure get lots of circus.



By Shahab Jafry

Published: Wed 7 Aug 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 7 Aug 2019, 11:39 PM

How did you like the drama in the Pakistani senate this week? Sixty-four opposition senators stood up in support of the bill to unseat the chairman of the Upper House. They needed only 53 votes, which is probably why most of them were smiling ear to ear. Yet minutes later, when came time for the secret ballot - which is how, for some reason, the constitution wants really serious matters to be decided - only 50 really signed for the motion.
So the chairman survived by three votes and opposition leaders were left scratching their heads about the 14 senators who stabbed them in the back.
Roman poet Juvenal used the phrase 'bread and circuses' to describe how the republic's elite used free food and games, mostly gladiator sport in the Colosseum, to keep people distracted when the going got tough. In our little republic [of Pakistan] we might not have free food, but we sure get lots of circus. And, just like this one, they really grab everyone's attention.
Now everybody's talking about this, suddenly, not why they're upset about the rising prices and unemployment. And plenty of theories are doing the rounds. Imran's much stronger now and the opposition's broken. The establishment is clearly behind Imran. Who do you think greased those palms? Maybe there were some persuasive late-night phone calls from 'unknown numbers'? And the best one, which comes from the government, is that the 14 who voted against actually answered the call of conscience. That should make everybody sleep a lot better.
But what do you think really happened? The opposition huddle, dinner after dinner, press briefings, and not a single note of dissent. Then suddenly, somehow, no less than 14 ratted on their word. In a house of a hundred, that's no mean feat. And still nobody is willing to accept that they did it.
Now, if you're one of the opposition leaders, how do you find the turncoats and teach them a lesson? It was a secret ballot, after all, and clearly nobody is going to just come forward. Makes you wonder about the secret ballot, doesn't it? Why would anybody want very serious matters to be decided secretly? It's perfectly legal, because the constitution says so, but is it really democratic?
And why all this fuss about the Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani in the first place? Remember his rise? Back when the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) was in power, the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) co-chairman Asif Zardari schemed with the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf) chairman Imran Khan to have the previous chairman removed and Sanjrani installed in his place. Even though he was a first-time senator.
That's probably why even as recently as a month ago most ordinary people would have struggled to name the senate chairman. Bilawal Bhutto was so happy that he kissed Sanjrani on the cheek and even evoked memories of his grandfather; calling the senate coup, of sorts, a 'victory for Bhuttoism'. Still, back then it was good for democracy because it would hurt Nawaz.
Now they went after the poor chap because he is, after all, Imran's man in the house. And since Imran just would not back down from the corruption cases, this was supposed to teach him a lesson. Now, therefore, it was going to be good for democracy because it would hurt Imran.
But all this is already in the past. Imran won this round and pretty much the whole opposition put together lost. Strangely, though, they're calling it a big loss for democracy, without caring to explain how since all this back-stabbing business, which is what they call it now, was perfectly in keeping with the sacred constitution.
Soon enough the street will forget this circus, just like it has forgotten the circus that catapulted Sanjrani to that seat, and you can be sure that the senate would go back to serving the people.
That is why they are fighting over it, isn't it? Everybody went the extra mile - someone did, for sure - to make sure their man became (or remained) chairman.
Sadly, though, this is where the show ends for the common folk. And it's not like they expected anything different. The news item after the senate vote mentioned yet another increase in fuel prices. And the next explained what inflation, now in double digits and in no mood to slow down, is going to do to household savings over the rest of this fiscal year.
But it's okay. Soon enough there will be more corruption cases, more threats to democracy, perhaps even an angry march on the capital as the opposition has been threatening all along. One more circus. And once again they'll fight it out to see who gets to serve us, the people, from the highest offices of the land. 
Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore


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