Government of the Rich

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By M. Saeed Khalid[1]


Introduction: The collapse of a bipolar world order has been followed by a surge of neo-liberal democracy leading to social strains in many parts of the globe. While the US brand of two party system primarily serves the country’s corporate interests, the European multiparty model promotes inclusive growth, taking care of basic needs of the people. In contrast, democracy in the Third World is seen as primarily serving the interests of the privileged classes.

This essay will focus on Pakistan where the latest democratic spell has just completed seven years. Five years of uninterrupted rule by the Pakistan People’s Party, followed by that of Pakistan Muslim League- N since June, 2013 have left the people wondering about whose interests are really being served by these major parties. Their disappointing performance – though different in many aspects – is gradually raising the prospects of a third force led by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf that promises a more equitable and fair system. In parallel, there are quarters openly recommending a technocratic set up to “clean up the system”.


The way for restoring a freely elected system was cleared by none other than the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf better known for calling the Pakistani democracy a sham during his military rule from 1999 which was transformed into a military controlled democracy from 2002 onwards.


Moves for opening up the suffocating system had started at a time when Musharraf was at the peak of his rule. His international forays in 2006 included visits to the European Union Headquarters in Brussels, attendance of the Non-Aligned Summit in Havana and the UN General Assembly besides meetings with US leaders, and the high profile launch of his autobiography In the line of Fire.


Back home, the situation showed some disturbing trends. The general’s mind was preoccupied by the fallout from his spats with two personalities hailing from Balochistan, one a tribal chief Akbar Bugti, killed while leading an armed insurrection and the other the country’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had annulled the government’s privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills.


Bugti’s death was seen as a victory for Musharraf and the Pakistan Army but it did not bring the Baloch insurgency to an end. However, in the short term, it was Musharraf’s decision to sack the Chief Justice that led to a popular wave of protest. Musharraf felt cornered for the first time after seven years of unchallenged rule.


In a bizarre twist of events, Musharraf agreed to a deal brokered by the Anglo-American tandem allowing the return of Benazir Bhutto to politics under his presidency. Bhutto had made a smart move by playing on the US frustration about Musharraf’s refusal to eliminate militant sanctuaries. She assured the US of her greater commitment to pursue the war on terror.


The stage was thus set for her return from self-imposed exile. Nawaz Sharif who had been exiled by Musharraf and continued to enjoy Saudi backing even after moving to London would ensure that he was not left out and managed to return as well to prepare for the elections.


The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan- TTP dispatched death squads to assassinate Benazir on her arrival back home. She survived the attempt in Karachi only to fall victim to the second attack as she was leaving the park after addressing a big rally in Rawalpindi. The PPP rode a sympathy wave assuming power for the fourth time with the difference that the party was no longer led by a Bhutto but Benazir’s husband Asif Zardari.


Despite the heavy baggage Zardari carried from Benazir’s terms in office, he took control of the PPP, managed to oust Musharraf and get himself elected as the President. Tactfully navigating the rough waters of a highly complex environment, he ensured a full term for the PPP-led government in Islamabad. In the process, he sacrificed the premiership of Yusuf Raza Gilani, disqualified by the Supreme Court for disobeying orders to write to the Swiss government to reopen corruption cases in the country’s tribunals.


The PPP rule from 2008 to 2013 should be remembered as a period of commissions and kickbacks on an unprecedented scale. On the positive side, salaries and wages were doubled accompanied by increases in subsidies to the agricultural sector. A social net was provided to the most vulnerable with the launch of the Benazir Income Support Proramme- BISP.


Resorting to deficit financing and large scale recruitment in public sector enterprises, the PPP repeated its performance of emptying the treasury and making the country unattractive for domestic as well as foreign investment excepting those ventures where substantial kickbacks were involved.


The country’s biggest property magnate became Zardari’s close friend, donating substantial sums to charity and community welfare. Among favours returned were two bomb proof homes for Zardari in Islamabad and Lahore besides countless other acts of munificence.


Zardari’s political savvy became evident from his success in evolving a modus vivendi with the all – powerful Army. His political doctrine is based on the end justifying the means, conceding turf to the Army to save his rule. Tensions were at their peak after the US air borne raid in Abbottabad in 2011 to eliminate Osama Bin Laden. In the end, Zardari’s investment of granting a three year extension to the Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani paid off despite a foolhardy attempt by Hussain Haqqani, Zardari’s ambassador in Washington, to take US help for cutting the Army to size.


The Zardari team’s inadequacy in governance was badly exposed during the great floods of 2010. The government failed to provide relief and the Army had to be brought in to save lives and carry aid to the flood victims. This was in stark contrast to the ability of some powerful landlords with political connections who were successful in diverting flood waters to save their properties. The more the troops took charge of relief operations, the more the civilian authorities looked vulnerable and useless.


The PPP government’s image, already tarnished by corruption scandals received a great blow as a result of its incompetence to effectively handle the situation arising from the 2010 floods. It contributed to the party’s decline in Punjab and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa to the benefit of the PML-N and Tehreek-e- Insaf. In the face of clamour for a technocrat set up, the PPP responded with its martyr complex, refusing to cut down cabinet size or state expenses.


The political parties came together to adopt the 18th Constitutional Amendment, granting greater power and funding to the provinces. Yet, they failed to hold any Local Bodies election from fear of loosening their hold on the levers of power by sharing the financial windfall with the Local Bodies.


Federal spending was marked by a massive hemorrhaging of public funds through state – owned enterprises like PIA, Railways and the Pakistan Steel Mills. Leaving aside telecoms and highways, the rest of the infrastructure, notably in the social sector, deteriorated rapidly due to population pressure, lack of commitment and resources as well as rampant corruption.


An account of the PPP rule from 2008 to 2013 would not be complete without a mention of the judgment by the Supreme Court to disqualify the then sitting Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on contempt of court for having refused to obey court orders to write to the Swiss authorities for reopening corruption cases against Zardari.


Gilani’s departure after four years of premiership brought to an end one of the most incompetent, inefficient and corrupt governments the country had had the misfortune to endure. While continuing to dither on vital political and economic issues, Gilani had started to romanticize his impending political martyrdom at the hands of judicial activists.


The upcoming third political force led by Imran Khan had a great re-launch when he addressed a mammoth gathering around Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan, sending shivers among the political dynasties. Though short on political or economic plans, the PTI was beginning to win support with its popular slogans of justice and accountability. Besides political players like Javed Hashmi, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Jehangir Tareen and Khurshid Kasuri, several other politicians had joined the party raising its electoral prospects.


PTI was not the only new star on the firmament. A religious preacher Tahirul Qadri who had raised a large cadre mounted a Long March to the capital to detabilize the political order. His peaceful ‘revolution’ was encouraged by the Arab Spring unfolding in several countries. Vowing to transform Islamabad’s Blue Area into Tahrir square, Qadri reached Islamabad in mid-January 2013 demanding dissolution of the government and the legislature and purify the system under his guidance.


Qadri’s threat to stay put till the demands were met began to vapourize in the sub-zero temperature of January nights his horde could no longer endure. A face saving formula was found to give Qadri a voice in election procedures ahead of the coming polls in May, 2013.  Thus ended the container revolution in Islamabad, the most unlikely venue for a political upheaval.


Qadri’s container revolution was based on an overestimation of his popular support and a lack of understanding of socio-political dynamics in society. He failed to grasp the reality that the entire system was based on a complex web of patronage and that political power rests with the notables.


It would be naïve to expect a preacher settled abroad to lead a popular revolt. Pakistan could not be compared to countries of the Arab Spring or Iran where Ayatollah Khomeini triumphantly returned after the Shah had left the country under the mounting pressure of mass unrest. Qadri returned to Canada with a promise to come back to reform the rotten system, refusing to take part in the coming election.


Imran’s rising popularity and Qadri’s show of strength indicated that society yearned for a change. The duo gave vent to the mounting frustration and sense of deprivation of those out of the combination of the two main parties and their allies. As the election campaign got underway, the PTI emerged as the third party contesting elections on a nationwide scale.


Imran had succeeded in motivating the urban young to become interested in elections. He had struck the right chord with that age raising their hope that given the will, issues like bad governance and endemic corruption could be addressed through elections.


For many, the 2013 election was not only about seeing an incompetent administration out but also about the welcome emergence of a third option in Pakistani politics. Two factors stood for a big PTI success. The party was still urban – based and it had to suffer the inherent first-past-the-post single constituency system that favours the larger parties. Additionally, elections in Pakistan are not really issue – based. Loyalties of diverse kinds tend to determine the voter’s choice.


In the run up to the May 13 election, the PPP looked more and more like the big loser especially in Punjab due to severe gas and power shortages and an intolerable rise in the cost of living linked among others to the constantly rising prices of petroleum products. There was a widespread feeling in Punjab that their province was unfairly treated in the distribution of energy, leading to industrial shut downs and large scale job losses.


The election was largely fair and peaceful. The PML-N swept Punjab and also emerged with a clear majority in the National Assembly, bringing Nawaz Sharif to an unprecedented third term of office as the country’s Prime Minister.


The People’s Party received the drubbing it deserved on account of its worst ever performance. It was way behind the PML-N in the national poll but succeeded in retaining power in Sindh. Its ally, the ANP was routed in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. The PTI became the third party nationally behind the PML-N and the PPP. It emerged as the largest party in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and set up a working coalition with the help of Jamat-I-Islami and other allies.


Nawaz Sharif’s third term as premier, beginning in June, 2013 was a sign of maturity in Pakistan’s fledgling democracy. The western media known for its enthusiasm about all the bad news from Pakistan practically overlooked the smooth democratic transition. Returning to the Prime Minister House after trials and tribulations lasting fourteen years was a vindication of Sharif’s cool and calculated politics.


Listening to Nawaz Sharif at a gathering of party stalwarts in Lahore, it became clear that he was still deeply attached to the ambition of building roads, metros and other things to do with steel, bitumen and wheels. Later, he remembered to talk about the basic necessities of the common man, promising to focus on health and education and making the lives of the poor less miserable. It appeared that he had still not been able to grasp the pyramid of needs where food and shelter come before fancy infrastructure projects.


In his remarks, Sharif appeared concerned about challenges like power shortages and the paucity of resources to overcome the crisis. He asked for a hundred days to measure his government’s performance against promises. He talked about respecting the electoral mandate of others, alluding to the PPP’s attempts to impede the PML-N’s rule in Punjab.


Nawaz Sharif touched upon the thorny issue of combating terrorism, stating that the TTP’s offer of talks should be taken seriously. He did not address the question that while the state wanted its writ to be respected in the tribal areas, the TTP was unwilling to cede areas under its control. The PML-N leader was not alone in preferring talks. Imran Khan, whose party was in power in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa also wanted to commence talks with the TTP.


The worsening economic situation did not deter the prime minister from reviving at the federal level what the PML-N government in Punjab had been doing with great relish; building roads, bridges, flyovers and the urban metro-bus. A costly metro-bus project was launched linking Rawalpindi with Islamabad. Another mega project of Karachi-Lahore motorway was to be fast tracked. But the proposal to go in for a monumental Gwadar-Kashgar rail/road link beat all previous ambitions of Nawaz Sharif to build mega projects.


It was in the economic field that Sharif and finance minister Dar met their biggest challenge. The economy was in dire straits with a depleted treasury, rising oil prices, dwindling foreign currency reserves, stagnant exports and a rapidly deteriorating exchange rate. People were relieved over the departure of a bunch of plutocrats. No government stole as much with a straight face as the team that was seen off in March, 2013 leaving behind trillions in bank notes and mountains of debt.


Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, failing to bring major tax reforms to raise state revenues, had to adopt measures to increase indirect taxes. The General Sales Tax was increased from 16 to 17 percent. The levy on mobile phone calls was doubled and further increases in petrol and CNG prices were decreed. Ideas of increasing direct taxes were moved to the back burner for fear of losing vital political support from the merchant class.


Dar argued that he could forgo the GST increase if those rejecting it could persuade the defence establishment to make an equivalent cut in their budget. The government imposed cuts on administrative expenditure. The looming default was averted by fresh loans from the IMF and an injection of financial aid by Saudi Arabia. Dar claimed to have fulfilled his promise of bringing back the dollar to its level in 2013. Within days, the dollar took a plunge from Rs.105 to Rs.99. Dar explained that the Saudis and other friends of Nawaz Sharif had decided to finance some mega projects in Pakistan. One of the schemes to benefit was the motorway in Sindh.


The growing stability on the economic front was not matched by the incessant terror attacks and a pervasive atmosphere of insecurity particularly in Karachi. It was decided to launch a clean- up operation by the Rangers and police in Karachi to eliminate or apprehend target killers, extortionists and members of the armed wings of political parties.


The government was still not determined to take the terrorist threat head on and a mandate of talks with the militants was obtained from the All Parties Conference. This effort eventually fizzled out but did cause a split in the TTP. To most observers, a big military operation in North Waziristan was not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. Among other factors, Army-civilian rapports in general, and Sharif’s history of troubled relation with Army Chiefs was an important consideration for the Prime Minister.


Sharif is known for his penchant for trying to mould the army to his desires rather than reaching out for a working arrangement with the institution. In this scenario, selection and appointment of a suitable Army Chief becomes an end in itself. After a great deal of reflection and meetings, Sharif settled for his namesake Raheel Sharif, the scion of a battle-hardened family as the new Army chief to replace General Ashfaq Kiyani.


General Sharif’s plan for a decisive fight against local and foreign jihadis were finalized as indirect talks with the TTP limped on. The process of weeding out the jihadi mindset within the Army had started after 9/11 under Pervez Musharraf and was continued during the six year term of Ashfaq Kayani. Both were targeted by the terrorists including an attack on the Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi.


The military operation codenamed Zarb-e-Azb to flush out the terrorists was launched in June, 2014 overruling the continuation of talks with the jihadis favored by the PML-N and PTI leaders.


Going after the militant threat was not the only cause of discord between Sharif and the Army. A major malentendu developed over the trial of former ruler Pervez Musharraf with the Army showing increasing disdain over any possibility of its Commander-in-Chief being punished. A compromise was reached ensuring that Musharraf would appear in court for indictment but thereafter matters might not be pursued to a dangerous level.


According to some accounts, Nawaz Sharif had even showed willingness for Musharraf’s travel abroad after the indictment. That however, did not materialize and Musharraf is still in Pakistan facing cases on various charges including treason while he continues to make statements asserting his role as a political player.


Efforts to destabilize the PML-N rule were started with the re-launch of Tahirul Qadri’s ‘revolution’ and then joining forces with Imran Khan to bring down the government by besieging the power centre in Islamabd. The news media gave 24 hour coverage to the PTI-PAT sit-in in Islamabad’s most sensitive zone right next to the citadel of power and the diplomatic enclave. Seen by many as a pipedream, the march to Islamabad and sit-in that lasted for months did harm not only to Sharif but to the country’s economy as well.


This was a far cry from Sharif’s triumphal return to power in June 2013. The two sit-in leaders kept on issuing thinly veiled threats of intervention by the Army in their favour. The government preferred humiliation over tough handling of the mob except when they made an attempt to march toward the Prime Minister House. The dharna-crowd succeeded in blocking access to the Parliament and Supreme Court buildings, holding parts of Islamabad under their control. The government’s plan to wear out the participants paid off as the searing heat gradually gave way to bitter cold making it impossible for the protestors to prolong their stay.


The Army leadership seeing the helplessness of the Prime Minister with a heavy mandate made it clear to the PTI and PAT leaders that it had no intention of wrapping up the civilian set-up. All those indirectly helping the protest movement pointed out that the two challengers had failed to mobilize the numbers required to physically occupy the seat of power and their dispersal was a matter of time.


Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek – PAT was the first to retreat under the subterfuge of allowing the sit-in crowd to spend Eid with their families. Imran Khan continued his nightly spectacle with more people on his container than on the ground. Two developments would come in to influence his thinking in favour of winding up his part of the six month old dharna.


The first was his decision to marry Reham, a TV anchor who had also interviewed Khan for her current affairs show. Secondly, the worst ever terrorist attack in Pakistan resulting in the brutal death of 150 school children and their teachers in Peshawar made the sit-in a minor issue. The political leaders including Imran joined the Prime Minister and the Army Chief in devising a new counterterrorism plan. That allowed the PTI leader to call off his sit-in.


The danger of Army intervention has receded. Yet it is the major beneficiary of the “Go Nawaz Go” movement. The entire business of dharna made it clear that there were political forces in the country which felt no hesitation in seeking the Army’s intervention in settling scores.


The Army also decided, against Sharif’s wishes, to launch a decisive military operation in North Waziristan and some other areas to uproot terror networks on a durable basis, thus bringing to end the half-hearted indirect talks between the government and Taliban representatives. The civilians thus lost their say in countering militancy through political means. Soon after the Peshawar attack, a whole new action plan has been launched relegating the civilian administration as a second fiddle to the Army commanders.


General Raheel Sharif may have succeeded where his predecessors got into open confrontation with Nawaz Sharif. By a combination of persuasion and coercion, the military has achieved two major goals. The government has eased up on Musharraf’s trial and the General is busy manoeouvring an unlikely political come-back.


The Peshawar tragedy has been followed by greater pressure on the PML-N leadership to curb sectarian organizations deeply entrenched in Punjab. On the other hand, India and the US have been urging Pakistan to come down hard on jihadist movements working under the cover of humanitarian and charitable activities. There is ambiguity about Hafiz Saeed’s openly hostile speeches especially regarding India. It is generally believed that while Pakistan has taken a clear position on the TTP and foreign fighters on its soil, it still keeps some of the old assets in militant networks.


Pakistan has been persistent in its sympathy for the Afghan Taliban based among others on the calculus that they are an indigenous phenomenon and will survive the extra regional forces in their country. This position is vindicated by the insistence of the US and the Kabul government to Pakistan to play the role of a facilitator in talks with the Afghan Taliban.


The Afghan dossier has always been a preserve of the Army but General Raheel has taken personal control of talks with the new Afghan government as well as with powers directly interested in bringing peace to Afghanistan. His high profile visits to Kabul, London, Washington and Beijing have relegated the civilian government to a secondary position.


The Army’s increasing activism on domestic and foreign fronts has been termed by some observers as a ‘soft coup’ leaving the civilian government to run the day to day administration or undertake its favourite projects like building power plants, roads, bridges and metropolitan transport.


In a parallel development, sections of the media have begun a campaign labelling the political class ‘beyond redemption’. Calls are being made to bring in a technocratic set up for five years to clean up the corrupt and inefficient system installed by the two major political parties. This may please the establishment but is hardly a way forward to help stabilize Pakistan’s unruly political order.


The PML-N government is extremely lucky – as governments of so many other oil importing countries- in benefiting from a drastic fall of the crude prices. This development is assisting in meeting the balance of payments deficit and bringing down the cost of living which is greatly influenced by transportation costs. The rate of inflation has fallen for the first time in a decade. This deprives the pro-technocrat camp of a useful handle to blame the government for the country’s financial woes. The soft coup not withstanding, the civilian government would be greatly helped by the cheap fuel in improving the balance sheet thus blunting the technocrat lobby from striking too soon.


[1] The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.