Asif Ali Zardari

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Directionless: trapped in a vicious cycle

The image below is that of a painting by the amazing Pakistani artist Saira Wasim and it relates to the theme of my piece below published in Express Tribune recently.
We just celebrated our 67th independence anniversary amid a show of hard power and political maelstrom — a beleaguered prime minister, cacophonous calls for ‘change’ and civil-military wrangling. If anything, the current crisis is reminiscent of Pakistan’s self-perpetuating curse: directionlessness and endemic instability. It does require a major effort by the ruling elite and intelligentsia to keep recurring trends alive and scuttle potential for progress. And we seem adept at it.

A year ago, it was hoped that Pakistan’s democratic transition was proceeding in the ‘right’ direction: one elected government followed by another, a free media, an independent judiciary and a military reviewing its past policy of interventionism. Obviously, such a situation imparted hope for policy revisions and course correction. Most importantly, given the nature of Sharifs’ support base, the promise of economic revival seemed realistic.

Our structural constraints and the dwindling quality of leadership have come to haunt us again. So, within a year, the political future looks uncertain; and in such a situation, the scope for deliberated policy reform becomes even more limited. The federal government has been battling for its survival since June and its capacity for democratic negotiation is almost absent. While the apparent cause for instability is lack of consensus on election results and mythical charges of rigging, the underlying factors are deeper and more worrying.


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.


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