Buy on the fly, sell on the news…
The news about President Asif Ali Zardari’s departure for Dubai on December 6 for medical treatment generated a string of rumours about his political future. Some rumours were about his incapacitating illness. Others suggested that he had gone abroad to save himself from the memo scandal that was being looked into by the Supreme Court. Others talked of the president being forced out of office by the military and that he would not return either for medical or political reasons.
No morning newspaper was published on December 7 because of Ashura holiday. The private sector TV news-show anchor persons and participants filled the gap by strengthening the rumours directly or indirectly; some discussed the methods of his impeachment on health grounds while others talked about the implications of his long or indefinite stay abroad. Still others linked his illness with his earlier health problems, suggesting he might not be able to function as president or the party leader. There were a few who played cool and advised caution.
This is not for the first time that Pakistani politics has been in the grip of rumours. In the earlier phase of civilian rule (1988-1999), rumours used to surface from time to time about the removal of the elected government. Only in four instances of dismissal of the elected governments by the president with the support of the army chief in August 1990, April 1993, November 1996 and October 1999 did these rumours turn into reality.
An interesting situation developed in Islamabad on September 24, 2006. The countrywide electricity breakdown generated the rumours that the military had removed President General Pervez Musharraf who was also army chief at that time. This unusual news of the army staging a coup against its own chief lasted for a few hours.
Rumours have become part of Pakistani politics. Many people, especially some from the over-competitive private sector media, push these rumours for drawing greater attention to their programmes or comments. Such rumours cause unnecessary mental strain to a large number of people and have negative impact on business and economic activity.
Before the speculations about the president’s departure to Dubai, the politically active circles and the media were focused on the memo controversy as the most critical issue, pushing aside the problems of internal insecurity, terrorism, troubled economy and energy crisis. The politically active circles in Pakistan and the media were dancing around the statements of one person, Mansoor Ijaz, based in New York. As he realised that Pakistani media was wrapped around his little finger, he issued several statements that not only reflected his changing position but also dragged more issues and personalities in the controversy. His word was taken as the whole truth because he was targeting the people that were not liked by the opposition and many people in the media. This enabled the main opposition party, the PML(N), to step-up its campaign to remove President Zardari from office. On top of all this came the sudden departure of President Zardari to Dubai. The presidency and the official media people were unable to calm down the rumour-infested political environment.
The abundance of rumours manifests the fragility of Pakistani politics, especially civilian political institutions and processes. These institutions are so weak and unsustainable that any speculation about their collapse or removal is viewed by the politically active circles as plausible until a new speculation overrides the old one.
Another reason for the popularity of rumours is the non-aggregative nature of Pakistani politics. The political competitors have not cultivated the habit of agreeing on goals and strategies of political conduct. The political parties and leaders are mostly unable to aggregate diverse individual and group political claims into broad policy demands, thereby not moving in the direction of consensus-building on what is to be pursued as the key political issues. Non-aggregative politics intensifies conflict and weakens political institutions and processes. It hardens the cleavages based on ethnicity, language, region, religion, political agenda which in turn fragments the political process.
Still another reason for the on-going political uncertainty and the overall absence of confidence in the future is the inability of the political players to rise above their partisan interests. If the democratic institutions and processes do not help the achievement of partisan interests of a group it tends to question the legitimacy of the political process and institutions. In Pakistan, this trend is quite common when civilian governments are functioning.
The PML(N) in its bid to oust President Zardari and the federal government feels that the parliament is not helpful. It does not have enough votes in the parliament to impeach the president or move a vote-of-no-confidence against the prime minister in the National Assembly. Therefore, it argues that the parliament has become irrelevant and it is endeavouring to launch street agitation. It would like a conflict to erupt between the federal government/presidency and the Supreme Court or the military, which would result in the collapse or removal of the federal government.
The past experience suggests that whenever there is civilian rule, the opposition parties individually or collectively declare the federal government (irrespective of its party affiliation) as a security threat or launch movement for saving Pakistan from “anti-nation and anti-state” federal government. Nowadays, these strategies are again being initiated by various opposition groups
Political parties and leaders are the guardians of elected civilian institutions and processes. If they decide to bypass or reject these institutions and processes in pursuit of their partisan interests, these cannot endure. Similarly, if a section of the political elite look towards non-elected state institutions like the military and the judiciary for displacing a civilian government, the future of democracy and civilian order can never be secure.
The major threat to democracy and civilian political arrangements in Pakistan comes primarily from political leaders themselves who think that settling scores with their political adversaries is the top most priority. Perhaps one group may subdue the other but in this free-for-all struggle for power, all political players –in power or out of power – will lose to non-elected state institutions like the military, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. Pakistan’s civilian democratic order is more threatened today than ever before. The rumour-mongering is a symptom of a major political ailment that can take down all political forces which would have negative implications for Pakistan as a functioning federal democratic state.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.