Will there be no opposition party?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE most striking feature of the post-election scenario in Islamabad has been the singlemindedness of purpose the political leaders have displayed in their bid for power. Had it not been for the fact that the political future of the country looks so grim, one would have found these toings and froings in the capital quite amusing. So desperate do our leaders appear to be to get into office that the permutations and combinations that are being tried or being spoken of in speculative newspaper stories leave people aghast.

This mad scramble for office is throwing up the strangest of bedfellows. Those whose political ideologies appeared at one time irreconcilable are now willing to make compromises and enter into a coalition. Politics does seem to be, after all, the art of the possible.

Given the composition of the National Assembly as it has emerged by accident or by design — it seems to be a bit of both — there is much leeway for manoeuvring. And that is what political parties are busy doing, with the present government also an active player in the shaping of the future dispensation. Every party is so focused on getting into office — the be-all and end-all of politics in Pakistan — that principles are being thrown to the winds unabashedly.

But does it necessarily have to be that way? If elections produce winners, they also produce losers. In the case of a split verdict, it requires great discretion in a party leadership to forgo the lure of office. In the days immediately after the polls on October 10 it was heartening to find some leaders discreetly hinting at an opposition role for their party. The People’s Party was the first and the most vocal in this respect when the difficult choices to be made came to the fore. But as the prospects of expedient bargaining opened up, all that spirit of self-denial and self-abnegation has evaporated in no time and we find the PPP leaders in warm embraces with the heavyweights of the MMA and the PML-Q.

True, the ultimate goal of politics is acquisition of power so that a party can put into effect its programme — political, economic, foreign policy, social, et al. But this is not always possible for every party at all time. To be able to pursue its own manifesto, a party must enjoy a comfortable majority or substantial plurality in the legislature in a parliamentary system. Besides, it should also be a cohesive organization without infighting in its ranks so that its leadership is not required to make questionable political compromises to win the approval of one faction or another. If the party’s structure is solidly organized at the grassroots, it will find it easier to enlist the cooperation of the people in implementing its policies, not all of which will always be palatable to the public.

Regrettably, none of the political parties involved in the current shenanigans in Islamabad has these characteristics. Hence their need to make compromises which are so drastic at times that it is robbing them of whatever credibility they once enjoyed. For instance, what is there in common between the MMA, the PPP, the PML-Q and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement to bring them together on the same political platform? They do not even have a minimum common programme — except the charm of holding office — on the basis of which they could be expected to govern in a coalition.

In these circumstances, the outcome of the political waltz in Islamabad when the music stops is quite unpredictable. If our misfortunes stem from the army’s Bonapartist ambitions, the failure of our party system is equally to blame for making it so very easy for the military to walk in at a time of its choosing and take over. No political party in the country has concentrated on its Organizational structure. Hence gradual decline and splintering of the Muslim League, the party that had spearheaded the movement for Pakistan, created a vacuum which has not been quite filled yet.

The PPP started off in the right direction but power fell in its lap before it had consolidated its base. Once in office, it was too distracted to attend to mundane matters like party organization. The religious parties present a different picture. They attend to party organization on the ground very methodically and with a sense of ideological commitment because they envisage a proselytizing role for themselves.

While all the parties have devoted considerable time and effort, as well as money, to electioneering, they have neglected their other functions. Any primer on the party system defines their functions additionally as aggregating and representing social interests, providing policy alternatives and training political leaders in the role of governing society.

At the stage at which Pakistan finds itself today a political party which voluntarily stays out of the race for power and chooses to play the opposition’s role would be rendering a great service to itself as well as to the country. It is now plain that those in office cannot act as a unifying force for the people. The country is too polarized and a military-backed government — as it inevitably has to be — will have so little credibility that it can hardly hope to perform the functions of unifying, educating, mobilizing and organizing the people. A party, which is willing to reach out to the people at a time when elections are not round the corner, would evoke a positive (though initially surprised and cynical) public response.

It could win popular support for specific programmes which promote the good of the community. For a change, the parties should organize themselves as any CBO (community-based organization) would to promote public development through participatory methods.

At the same time, the opposition party would be expected to perform three other important functions. One, it should strive to restore the dignity of parliament. Unburdened by the chores of office, its MNAs should have ample time on hand to devote to their role as legislators. Let them train themselves to become seasoned parliamentarians that would be no mean contribution to democracy in the country.

Secondly, it is time the parties began learning to do their homework on various issues facing the country which they have woefully neglected so far. They should set up their own research cells and study the problems of society and devise feasible solutions. Even if a party cannot implement those solutions straightaway, being not in the government, it can least mobilize public opinion in support and press for their adoption by the government in power or move them in parliament as policy alternatives. In this way it can act as a pressure group rather than merely as agitators and also emerge as the true custodian of public interests.

Thirdly, political parties need to re-learn their lesson of playing the role of monitors and watchdogs. By remaining alert, the opposition can help keep the government on its toes and thus provide the checks and balances to the system which are needed to make the government accountable.

One only hopes that the parties which have to sit on the opposition benches show maturity and decide to serve the nation in this way. This might prove to be a rather long route to power. But it will certainly be a steadier and durable one. It will also bring stability to the country.

Here it should be added that the government, whoever runs it, should recognize the role of the opposition in the political system. The opposition parties should not be treated as a bunch of pariahs and malcontents to be treated with contempt — something that unfortunately has been the norm in Pakistan — and should be accorded the respect and importance due to them as representatives of the people. This would give the opposition the dignity, which is essential to make it an integral and vital part of the political system. This would also instil confidence in the parties sitting in the opposition and would help in the growth of a culture of tolerance and accommodation.