Numbers victory, no more

AS EXPECTED, the currently unified opposition has begun to exert political pressure on the government by tabling a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister. One hundred and forty-one members have signed the motion. A 500 page comprehensive charge-sheet accusing the government of corruption, and of governance and foreign policy failures, has been submitted with the motion. Dozens of opposition members have signed up to speak against the government. An open vote is expected on the motion which will be taken up for discussion on August 29.

By Nasim Zehra

Published: Sun 27 Aug 2006, 9:06 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:25 PM

This move by the opposition of course poses no immediate threat to the survival of the present government. It does however underscore the severe problems with the current military engineered political set-up. The no-confidence motion is against the Prime Minister because he is the head of the parliamentary government, but it actually targets the military-engineered quasi-democracy.

The opposition too realises fully well that the move will not succeed. But its objective isn’t to remove the government. It is to initiate pressure on the government. The opposition has used the current system to exert the pressure in a coordinated, coherent and widely communicated manner. It has used its constitutional prerogative to table the no-confidence motion. Its major corruption charges against the government rest on the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s judgment against the privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mills. In moving as a united group to table the motion, the opposition has demonstrated its ability to forge unity on the crucial common denominator of establishing genuine democratic rule and end to all military involvement in politics.

The government is confident that this motion will fail. The opposition has unity but not the numbers. The motion will not carry. The Prime Minister has therefore been ostensibly casual about the democratic prerogative of the opposition to table a no-confidence motion. On the sidelines, minor attacks on the MMA in the parliament are underway. For example to put the MMA on the back-foot, the MQM has charged the MMA with blasphemy for tearing the draft of the Women’s Right Bill. Similarly, the ruling party too raised the issue of the JUI-(F)removing Quaid-e-Azam’s photograph from their office in the parliament. Interestingly, on both these issues the MMA itself too would also have gone for the ‘kill’ against other political parties.

Such is the nature of Pakistan’s current political system. Survival above all else. For that the numbers in the parliament must be got right…by hook or by crook. The establishment, aided by various political forces, ensures its technical survival. For example, the controversial LFO package that allowed the re-election of a COAS president was supported by the MMA. The MQM will help to defeat the opposition’s no confidence motion. Pakistan’s higher courts, until recently, created the ‘enabling environment’ for this military engineered quasi-democratic system to survive. Other state institutions, including the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and the intelligence agencies, have also been unconstitutionally engaged in influencing Pakistan’s politicians. To ensure continuity of this system, they have often, overtly and covertly, used fear and favours to manipulate the politicians. ‘Getting the numbers right’ therefore has been the name of the game.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Prime Minister is projecting victory on August 29 for both the government and for Pakistani democracy. Technically, he is correct when he maintains that "in a political democratic system moving and defending of no-trust motions was not a strange thing, and the onus of proving the majority is always on the opposition, which challenges the government". The Prime Minister knows on numbers alone the ruling PML-Q and its coalition partners can defend themselves. Clearly, for those who wield power and those who have a role to play in the present system, the broader issues that question the credibility, the moral authority and the democratic character of this current political system, remain irrelevant.

What are those broader questions ? One, the nature of reform required within Pakistan cannot be successfully carried out without the backing of popular politics. Two, a credible and functioning democratic system is a must to address provincial grievances and resolve the issues of provincial and inter-provincial grievances.

Pakistan’s political history is a paradoxical tale of myopic vision. No matter how valid the vision, how grand the ideas and sincere the intent, the means have been myopic and self-defeating. The myopia is built into the structure of personalised rule that has perpetually asserted itself, within the Pakistani power context, above process and principles. The only known antidotes to the myopic exercise of political and state power are principles and processes that are laid down by the Constitution, upheld by the judiciary, implemented through parliamentary watch-dog institutions and abided by the government in power. Without this complex mesh of checks and balances, credible democracy remains an illusion.

Pakistan remains a text-book study of how absence of credible democracy creates the debilitating paradox of a myopic vision within the ruling class. At present the myopic approach which does not make itself subservient to ‘rules of the game’ in politics but plays politics by rules drawn on shifting sands, excludes compromises, ignores the need for consensus building, opts for the Constitutional letter not spirit and disregards the need to organise a trustworthy election process, will gravely undermine important efforts initiated by this government to reform state, society and politics in Pakistan.

In a country where there is urgent need for a reformed, rational and rooted but contemporary politics, the bulk of political energy is expended on battling political foes. The deep divide between the establishment and some of the major political forces like the PPP and even the PML-N is not over ideological and policy differences. It’s over absence of fair-play. Conversely, Pakistan’s opposition is united over the absence of credible democracy, not a reform agenda. Clearly, until the political battles remain, they will dominate all else in Pakistan.

Minor advances notwithstanding, no major reform agenda can succeed without support of popular political forces. With all the post-1999 numbers-based political victories that the present set-up has won, the establishment has only used it to take Pakistan towards military-engineered quasi-democracy, not towards genuine democracy. The government’s numbers victory on August 29 is only likely to strengthen quasi-democracy. Until the ostracisation of the mainstream political parties ends, the present system will not move any closer to a credible democracy.

Nasim Zehra is a fellow of Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass. and Adjunct professor at SAIS Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC

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