With a sense of déjà vu

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IS THIS the turning point? As the events in Islamabad unfold, it becomes instantly clear that the filing of the presidential reference against the chief justice has come as the proverbial spark in a tinderbox that was waiting to explode. Had it not been the reference, it would have been something else.

That is why people are interpreting the happenings of the last 12 days as the lawyers’ revolt, the public’s outrage, a storm on the political horizon and an attack on the fourth estate and so on. What is clear is that the discontent that was building up has now burst into the open.

It is now that one becomes acutely aware of the failure of our political system. The key test of a democracy is not how its leaders are elected, how it legislates its laws or how justice is dispensed. The real strength of a political system is how political crises are handled and how smoothly governments are changed when they lose credibility. A healthy and stable democracy contains mechanisms for a peaceful transition with a measure of continuity in the political and constitutional structures and the socio-economic framework.

The tumultous happenings in Islamabad with their echoes reaching every corner of the land leave one guessing about what the future has in store. Do not other countries – even the long standing democracies of the West – face similar crises? Remember the massive anti-war rallies in Britain and how Prime Minister Tony Blair was put in the dock at the Labour Party convention last year and was obliged to announce a deadline of sorts for his exit? President George W. Bush has also had his share of troubles aplenty. But the difference is that the American constitution and the unwritten Basic Law of Britain have safety valves to let the steam out and, if it gets too hot in there, for a change of government.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s political system provides no exit strategy for a ruler whose conviction, in any case, is that he is destined by the divine to rule for life. It is widely believed that the present crisis has been sparked by the president’s reference against the chief justice who was making the administration and the army uncomfortable by taking up issues that the power wielders would prefer to sweep under the carpet. But the fact is that the political balancing act that President Musharraf has been performing all these years has reached a stage that it can no longer be sustained. He has opened far too many political fronts for his own good and now stands isolated. Since the system has no mechanism to cope with a confrontation of this nature, the country finds itself in this messy deadlock that we see today.

If one has a strong sense of déjà vu – with a different scenario and actors – can one really be blamed? Ayub Khan’s exit came when the price of sugar shot sky high and the disgruntled public took to the streets. His own colleagues in uniform moved to divest him of his office. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Waterloo was engineered by the powers that be when the PNA made poll rigging the contentious issue and the army stepped in. The period of civilian rule in the nineties was saved the agonising process of the beginning-of-the-end because the tenure of Benazir Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s governments was cut short by the army before a crisis built up.

This time the situation is different in another way. The whole process has been expedited and intensified by the television channels. In constant competition with one another, they have played a key role in bringing a minute-to-minute, blow-by-blow account of the happenings in the capital into people’s sitting rooms in the cities and the autaqs in the villages. On a recent visit to Alam Khan Chachar village (with a population of 500) in Dadu district of Sindh, I found the community fully informed about the drama being enacted in Islamabad. This has whipped up public anger and created lively interest in what is going on, making it more difficult than ever for the government to suppress the truth. The government now has two options. It can either retreat under pressure, which may give it a little breathing space – but only for the time being. With elections due in a few months, the regime will find itself under immense pressure and may not be able to resort to the constitutional juggling that it has had recourse to in the eight years that Musharraf has been in power. But that is taking a rosy view of things. The other choice before the president is to heed his military instincts which will unquestionably prompt him to crack down on those challenging his authority.

What next? This is certain that in these circumstances one can forget about democracy our intellectuals have been dreaming about since Ayub Khan clamped the first martial law on the country. Even if some kindly general decides to give the political leaders a chance, can they get together and forge a consensus on the critical issues that face Pakistan today? The political opposition is so fragmented that the only point of agreement among them is to oust General Musharraf from power. They are at loggerheads when it comes to adopting a stance on the role of Islam in governance, the country’s foreign policy especially vis-à-vis India, Afghanistan and the US, and the status to be accorded to women.

That is Pakistan’s dilemma. No ready answers are available, given the absence of clear leadership choices before the people. This is frightening. Does it mean that the slide into chaos is inevitable?