Sharif’s 12/12

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The twelfth anniversary of 12 October 1999, a watershed in Pakistan’s sixty-four year turbulent political history, passed rather quietly. It could have been an occasion to celebrate democracy ushered in less than four years ago after nine years of Musharraf’s dictatorship.

There was nothing much to cheer about, it seems. Nawaz Sharif who claims to have suffered most under Musharraf marked the occasion by staging a sit-in in front of the parliament- not entirely to protest against military rules in Pakistan but to protest against “rising inflation, load shedding and bad governance”. As an afterthought perhaps, he also condemned Musharraf’s October 12 military coup.

The Charter of Democracy signed by Sharif and Benazir Bhutto with much fanfare in London in May 2006 is all but forgotten. Things have come full circle since then. It is business as usual between the two main political parties of the country, harking back to the zero-sum confrontation of the nineties.

Nawaz claims to have stuck to his part of the bargain. He knows that his enlightened self-interest demands that he should wait for his turn. In his own estimation, thanks to the maladroitness of the ruling coalition at the federal level, he is poised to win the next general elections. The elections, if held on time, are still more than a year away. Is he willing to wait?

It is evident from Shahbaz Sharif’s now much too frequent histrionics against Zardari that there is a definite method to this madness. Probably, the Sharifs are just doing the good cop/bad cop number.

At the sit-in in front of the parliament, flanked by those very turncoats who were enjoying the fruits of power when he was in exile, Nawaz Sharif did not pull any punches. Taking undue credit for restoration of the judiciary, he sought the support of the masses “for another revolution”.

President Zardari after his alliance with the PML (Q) and bringing back the MQM in the fold is poised to attain a majority in the Senate elections due March 12 next year. As a result, he is all but assured another five-year term as president. And this eventuality is sending a chill down the spines of the Sharifs.

Perhaps, they are weighing their options. Whether chaos on the streets to invite the army back in the business of toppling civilian regimes was a lesser evil than five more years under Zardari? The Sharifs have been outwitted and outfoxed by their wily opponent at every stage in the past three and a half years.

Nawaz Sharif, obsessed with flying solo, failed to cut a deal with his erstwhile friends and natural allies, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat. Although late in the day, he has started embracing their dissidents.

The PML(N) hasn’t followed policies of forgive and forget; instead they have the distinction of alienating virtually every political party of the country. Sheer arrogance, even while in the opposition, has become its hallmark.

The Sharifs are not the only ones who would like to see the back of Zardari as soon as possible. Imran Khan, sparking the imagination of younger voters and those disillusioned with most mainstream parties particularly the PPP coalition as well as the PML(N), is all set to upset the apple cart in the next elections.

He is organising his party for the general elections rather than relying on street agitation. One downside for the PML(N) is its dismal performance in Punjab where Shahbaz has ruled with an iron hand. Imran is bound to exploit this weakness to cut into their vote bank. The PPP, rather than fighting on performance, is banking upon the juggernaut of its election alliances with different political parties in the country including the PML(Q) and the MQM.

General disillusionment with the democratic system is perhaps an even bigger danger for democracy than the political parties running it, or for that matter the military. The resistance to an undemocratic unconstitutional change is dissipating fast in direct proportion to the increase in travails of the common man.

The patience and forbearance for the system to take root is simply absent amongst the middle classes – the backbone of any vibrant democracy. The very forces that whined about lack of democracy and civil liberties under Musharraf now want the PPP coalition out as soon as possible, even if it takes some tinkering with the constitution.

The industrial elite and the big business that prospered enormously under Musharraf, philosophically speaking do not believe in democracy. During the good part of the Musharraf years, the GDP growth remained robust at a rate of 7 percent. Owing to economic reforms in 2005, the World Bank named Pakistan the top reformer in the region and number ten globally.

This is a far cry from the present GDP growth rate of less than 3 per cent. True, the previous regime rode on the crest of a worldwide economic boom whereas the ushering in of the present civilian government was marked by a deep global recession that still haunts the global economy. But the fact remains that business and industry is sick and tired of power shortages, poor law and order and flawed economic policies.

Musharraf did not add an iota to the power-producing infrastructure. His foreign and security policies made Pakistan a dubious partner of the US in the war on terror. On his watch, Pakistan became the biggest victim of terrorism in the world in terms of loss to life and the economy.

This has all happened on the present government’s watch also and hence it is also has to take the flak for it. Its dismal record of poor governance has not helped matters. It will eventually have to pay for the present state of inertia at the hustings.

Fortunately, with a fiercely independent superior judiciary, a free and vibrant media, and a military leadership not interested in overtly taking over, those who are clamouring for a change will have to wait for now. General Kayani is too embroiled in dealing with an increasingly hostile and threatening US defence establishment and a budding nexus between Kabul and New Delhi. This is not the time for coups d’etat. Especially against a government that is giving it full support.

Unlike Nawaz Sharif, Zardari is shrewd enough not to alienate the army.

The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today