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Farewell President Zardari

Here is something I wrote for TFT, analyzing President Zardari’s tenure

President Zardari has set a new record of being the only democratically elected President to have completed his term and left the office without handcuffs, disgrace or an exile order. The ongoing transition to democratic rule after three decades (1977-2007) of direct and indirect military rule is not going to be a smooth ride. Pakistan’s civilian institutions remain weak and vulnerable to systemic crises. That Zardari bolstered the cause for civilian rule in an incremental manner will be remembered in history despite the reservations of critics in the political arena as well as the media.

In 2008, the decision of the PPP to field Zardari as a candidate was met with public uproar largely constructed by Pakistan’s media industry, which primarily caters to an ‘urban’ and ‘middle class’ demographic. It was said rather authoritatively that Zardari was unfit for office; and not just due to his alleged corruption during his wife’s tenure as the Prime Minister. Pundits opined that he lacked ‘capacity’ and an understanding of Pakistan’s complex issues. In fact, a major newspaper group’s editor and some of its TV hosts predicted on a regular basis that Zardari would be out of power within months.

None of these uncharitable predictions proved true. If anything, Zardari was able to muster support from his old, bitter rivals and made alliances across the political spectrum. For the first time in PPP’s history, it ruled all four provinces as well as the centre, and even bagged a majority in the Senate for after 1977. These extraordinary political skills stunned even Zardari’s sworn enemies. The multi-party coalition enabled the PPP government to undertake unprecedented structural reforms in the shape of the 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments to the Constitution of Pakistan. Gilgit-Baltistan was declared a de facto province with an improved rights’ framework and work was started to address Balochistan’s marginalization. After the new National Finance Commission Award, the development budget of the province increased threefold. Most importantly, the state’s obligation to protect the poor from price shocks was articulated through a successful income support programme, which by now serves millions of poor households and empowers women. Reform process in FATA was also commenced, though it remains stymied due to the conflict in the region.

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September 19th, 2013|Politics, Published in The Friday Times|4 Comments

Elections 2013: A Peaceful Transfer of Power

My piece for South Asia magazine (published in Jan 2013 issue)

General elections in Pakistan are scheduled to take place later this year; however, the ongoing political instability signals otherwise.

The forthcoming general elections in Pakistan are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is a unique moment in Pakistan when a democratic government under a civilian President is completing its term and preparing for a transition through elections. Secondly, due to the constitutional changes made by the current parliament under the 18th and 20th Amendments, the process remains firmly in civilian hands. This has caused an unprecedented moment in our history where the elections are not being supervised or managed by the military establishment, which has called the shots over a larger course of the country’s history.

The last time a civilian regime managed the election was in 1977 but the results were controversial and were annulled, leading to Gen. Zia ul Haq’s led coup d’ etat.

Throughout the 1990s, most political parties were used as puppets by the security establishment against each other. Four elections were held between 1988 and 1999. Each time, a President, who acted at the behest of the military and intelligence agencies, ‘engineered’ the electoral results by appointing a handpicked and compliant caretaker government.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN) were the two major parties playing this game with the Army. The Musharraf coup and subsequent political developments reversed this trend as these two parties entered into a compact in 2007 and agreed not to approach the military to resolve or fix political disputes. Whilst Musharraf and Gen. Kayani oversaw the elections of 2008, the results surprised everyone, illustrating a clear victory for anti-Musharraf forces. Both parties have liaised with the military between 2008-2013 but have jealously guarded their parliamentary space as well as the continuation of the democratic system. Governance challenges and failures notwithstanding, the record of political parties has been encouraging on this front.

In the spirit of constitutionally mandated agreements, the government and opposition have appointed a respectable former judge as the Chief Election Commissioner. Similarly, other formalities have been taken care of and the rest will be handled in the days to come. The appointment of a caretaker administration is another major step that needs to be taken to ensure that an impartial regime takes over the task of administering elections. In Pakistan, given its bitter history, the legitimacy of an election and the confidence in the caretakers is of major importance.  […]