Friday June 21, 2024

A change for the worse

By Hussain H Zaidi
April 14, 2022

Prior to the exit of Imran Khan, in 1989 a no-trust motion was voted upon against the-then prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The contrasting manners in which the ruling party of the day reacted to the no-trust motion on each occasion is a grim pointer to the direction in which our politics has moved since 1989 – by all accounts, a turn for the worse.

In a parliamentary democracy, the executive is the creation of parliament. Being the chief executive, the prime minister must enjoy the confidence of the majority of the popularly-elected legislature – in our case the National Assembly. That is the reason one of the first agenda items after the election of the presiding officers in a newly elected parliament is to ascertain who enjoys the confidence of the majority of the members.

In some countries, as in India, the prime minister is appointed by the president. After his/her appointment, the prime minister is bound to seek a vote of confidence from the popular chamber within the stipulated period. In case he fails to do so, he has to call it quits. In India, in 1996, Atal Bihari Vajpayee stepped down as premier only a fortnight after being sworn in having failed to win the vote of confidence from the Lok Sabha.

Taking due cognizance of this fundamental convention of parliamentary form of government, Article 91 (3) of the constitution of Pakistan states: “After the election of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, the National Assembly shall, to the exclusion of any other business, proceed to elect without debate one of its Muslim members to be the Prime Minister.” Clause (4) of the same article adds: “The Prime Minister shall be elected by the votes of the majority of the total membership of the National Assembly.”

Logically, if the National Assembly by a majority can elect a member as prime minister, it can also vote them out. Hence, Article 95 of the constitution stipulates that if a motion of no-confidence is passed by a majority of the total membership of the National Assembly, the prime minister shall cease to hold office. Thus the popularly elected assembly’s power to vote out the prime minister is an essential, non-negotiable feature of parliamentary democracy.

Coming back to Pakistan, in a power struggle, prime ministers have generally been whumped by powerful presidents. However, prior to April 10, 2022 no prime minister had ever been voted out on the floor of the house. The only prime minister who had come close to being voted out was Benazir Bhutto.

The election of the charismatic Benazir Bhutto in 1988 marked the eclipse of a long, dark era of despotism, against which she had spearheaded a popular movement. Though it had emerged as the single largest party in the national elections, her party, the PPP, fell short of a clear majority and could form the government only with the help of smaller/regional parties and independents, and having reached a power-sharing deal with the then president and other powerful stakeholders. However, all along the weak coalition hung by a thread.

Things came to a head in 1989 when the opposition tabled a non-confidence motion against Benazir Bhutto. In view of the thin majority of the ruling coalition in the National Assembly, the outcome of the motion was anybody’s guess. That said, Benazir Bhutto dealt with the opposition’s move with all grace and dignity befitting a democratically elected leader. At no point did she term the motion an international conspiracy, although being a leader of international stature, she could have contrived a conspiracy theory without much ado. Her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, it may be mentioned, is widely believed to have been a victim of such a conspiracy.

Nor did she, or any other leader from her party, use abusive language against her opponents, much less accuse them of being morally bankrupt or traitors. She did strongly criticize the opposition for what she called their undemocratic tactics and allegedly trying to purchase loyalties of her parliamentarians. In return, she took the flak for having allegedly resorted to similar tactics. At that time, the constitution didn’t embody provisions against floor-crossing by the legislators and so they were absolutely free to move from one party to another.

It is widely believed that the strings of the opposition, which was led by the then Punjab chief minister and future prime minister Nawaz Sharif, were pulled by the then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK). But Benazir Bhutto didn’t point an accusing finger at state institutions. Nor did she threaten the members of her party who were suspected of defecting, or their families, of dire consequences. To top it all, despite being a hugely popular leader, she didn’t seek to defeat the no-confidence motion through a show of strength on the streets. Being a leader who was well-steeped in democratic conventions, she knew well that, far from being an aberration, a non-trust motion was an integral part of the parliamentary form of government.

Equally graceful was the role of the then speaker of the National Assembly and veteran politician, Malik Meraj Khalid, who had already won accolades for conducting the business of the house in a completely impartial way, as he was supposed to do as per the spirit of his high office. At no point during the whole episode did he demonstrate that he was taking sides. Instead, he went by the book and allowed the no-trust motion to take its logical course. The highest court of the land didn’t have to intervene to ensure that the motion was put to vote.

The no-trust motion was defeated by only 12 votes and Prime Minister Bhutto survived. But the cards had already been stacked against her. In a few months, she was sacked by president GIK by invoking the now-defunct Article 58 (2-b) of the constitution. In a game of fluctuating fortunes, three years later she was back in the saddle having sunk her differences with the same GIK. Politicians can always have more than one bite on the cherry; so political battles may not be taken as a matter of life and death.

The logical question which the events preceding the exit of Imran Khan has given rise to is this: why has politics become such a squalid affair in Pakistan? Certainly, the advent of the 24/7 TV channels and the presence of a ubiquitous social media provide sufficient ammunition to politicians and their supporters to heap slur on their opponents to their heart’s content. But the media, mainstream or social, isn’t the prime culprit. It is the diabolical narrative, which has taken hostage the impressionable minds of the young generation hook, line, and sinker, that has primarily caused the moral standards in politics to plummet to their nadir.

Thanks to the narrative, demonizing rivals, showing zero tolerance for dissent, and ability to command mindless submission, all in the name of religion, patriotism or morality, have come to be prized as the foremost virtues of a leader. On the other hand, tolerance, compromise and respect for the law and the constitution are seen as a sign of moral fragility unworthy of a true leader.

In practice, however, for the high leadership the narrative is no more than a stratagem. When the chips are down, no one is naive enough to show a particular disregard for bending. The only proviso is that they shouldn’t be seen to bend.

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi


The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.