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March 12, 2018

Battered, bruised, rolling down


March 12, 2018

Democracy will complete an important climb today as the elections for the Senate chairman and deputy chairman take place, ending the suspense that has gripped the country for weeks now.

As things stand today, the numbers favour the ruling the party to get its choice installed to both the offices – and thus bag another electoral victory against its opponents. However, the PPP aims to bring all its resources into play and hopes to pull off a surprise. Even if the surprise is a consensus candidate, the damage is already done. Regardless of who wins, this climb has left the democratic order in Pakistan gasping for breath. There are more causes for worry than celebration over the closure of Senate polls and burial of fears that these elections could be scuttled, aborted or delayed. In fact, Senate elections themselves tell you all there is to know about the frail nature of democracy in Pakistan, and how truncated and moth-eaten it has become.

There was total manipulation of the procedure of democracy – starting from the change in Balochistan where PML-N party members changed tack and overnight became an independent party. The new chief minister, and all those who backed him, came to the stage thumping his chest about the services he aims to render for his deprived province. But it was lost on no one as to why and how this change came about and what its purpose was.

The Senate polls revealed it all: Balochistan (the deprived province) was positioned as a vital pawn in the game of Punjab-centred politics whose aim was (and is) to somehow reduce the ruling party to the level of Karachi’s Pak Sarzameen Party. That the equation of numbers still does not support the intended manoeuvre is not really important. What’s important is the lengths to which every political resource has been pressed into service to somehow achieve a result that is opposite to the natural outcome of a democratic exercise: ie the majority party gets to elect its own choice to lead the Senate. Earlier on, the election of senators showed the keenness to reduce a genuine majority into a restrained minority, with Asif Ali Zardari becoming both the ploy and the decoy in the strategy.

What followed is history that is minutely documented and is known to everyone. The victory of the PPP’s bonus senators from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi, and the rate at which this bonus has been negotiated both are indicators of the intensity of the effort to cut the ruling party down to size and lay the foundation of a system that is not dominated by the influence of the Sharif family. One consequence of this battle is a deeply wounded system that has again shown itself to be up for grabs and manipulation – the argument that Farhatullah Babar has made and paid for through his nose. (That Asif Ali Zardari has sidelined him decisively is the biggest proof that he must have said or done something right!).

Now post polls, the Senate, the most august house in the parliamentary system, is the new example the public quotes of corruption, nepotism and buying and selling of loyalties. Regardless of who the chairman and deputy chairman are, the new house (half of it) will remain the under the shadow of this low public view for a long time to come. Senators are now seen in a light no better than what shines on those who make it to the National Assembly – hardly a compliment.

And this is just the beginning of a ruthless season of conflict. After the Senate polls, at least three more theatres of conflict are visible already. One is the outcome of cases in the National Accountability Bureau that involve the Sharifs. Extension of the date for closing these cases, granted by the Supreme Court, is proof of how complex the effort has become to establish legally-sound guilt of the Sharifs in the various charges levelled against them. Whether it is lack of evidence or poor prosecution, anyone watching the proceedings in NAB courts cannot but be struck by the feeling of how different this has turned out to be from the days of the formation of the JIT and the investigation process.

At that time, it looked as if everything had been found out, that all piles of incriminating evidence were in the pocket of the prosecution, and that it would just take weeks to get the Sharifs declared guilty. Clearly, this was the impression created on account of high-publicity Supreme Court proceedings and remarks. Now, from the Calibri font to paper ownership to records of money laundering and suspect property purchases, everything is turning out to be a prosecution’s nightmare. In retrospect, it makes sense why Nawaz Sharif was chucked out on the basis of the iqama: declaring him guilty on the basis of JIT report findings would have been wholly untenable even in a system that is so good at declaring wholly untenable propositions totally tenable. Be that as it may, now NAB has gotten the final extension to decide the cases.

As it happens, the date of the decision is very close to the national election – two months from now. A guilty verdict (which is most likely, considering how narrow the lane of justice has become) that sends Nawaz Sharif to jail will become another tumultuous happening – deepening divisions, poisoning the system, mounting uncertainty. The PML-N won’t take it lying down and the judicial system won’t budge from its position, backed by power. That would be a clear-cut collision course which could scarcely be avoided.

The other big tussle that is coming up relates to the selection of the interim setup. The law makes it mandatory that this should be done mutually by the government and the opposition. In case of disagreement, joint parliamentary committees at the centre and the province come into action. A deadlock even at this stage brings the Election Commission into play which picks one out of the three names forwarded to it by the committee.

The abnormality of conflict witnessed during Senate elections should leave no one in any doubt about the viciousness that will pervade this process to establish the interim setup. The whole country will be governed by the interim government; it will be in command of the entire resources of the state. Of course, it cannot interfere with the election process, the sole preserve of the Election Commission. But even then there are a million ways an interim setup can become a pit of intrigue. Governing Pakistan at a time of extreme internal conflict and rising external pressures, the interim government will be the closest thing to the idea of a non-Sharif, non-Zardari and non-Imran setup of national consensus that has technocrats and experts in power! This is a rather mouth-watering proposition for those who have consistently argued for a government of all talents minus ‘traditional politicians’ to ‘fix’ Pakistan.

And then the last of the foreseeable battlefront: the 2018 national elections. A full-page space is required to detail the likely happenings in that mega event. For now, suffice it to say that these polls will be brutal, expensive and bloody, in which every inch of the political land will be fought for with all weapons deployed. A victory of the Nawaz League in Punjab will be the defeat of the whole narrative that has been carefully crafted in the last five years, of late in courtrooms more than anywhere else. This sentence says a lot. This tells in a few words a great deal about the extreme stakes that will define the 2018 polls and their conduct. It will be do or die, win or perish.

In sum, past the Senate polls, Pakistan’s politics and its struggling democratic order have entered the ring for the final few rounds. These rounds, unfortunately, won’t be pleasing to the eye and will be very heavy on the heart of a nation crying out for peace, stability and attention to governance.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12

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