Monday, December 12, 2011

The Zardari Rumour Mill

Every public wishes to know what is transpiring in the halls of power that run their countries. It should be no surprise, then, that rumours about Zardari's resignation erupted in the wake of his abrupt absence and the government's contradictory press releases.

What is the exact source of these rumours?

Far from originating domestically, the evidence indicates that they originated overseas. On December 6, an article titled "President Zardari suddenly leaves Pakistan - is he on the way out?" was posted by Josh Rogin on the website of the US magazine, Foreign Policy. The article cites a "former US government official" who claims that Zardari had earlier been incoherent when speaking to President Obama regarding the NATO killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers. The unnamed official further speculates that Zardari may resign on account of his supposed ill-health.

The Foreign Policy article was released relatively quickly after news broke about Zardari's illness. Additionally, the article is repeatedly referenced in other news articles. These points indicate that the Foreign Policy article was one of the main sources of the resignation rumours.

But is there any truth to the rumours?

One can only resort to speculation - however, certain scenarios are more likely than others.

Consider the case where Zardari resigns of his own accord. The argument is that he has been feeling intense pressure ever since he took office and the recent Memogate scandal was the final straw. However, Zardari is no stranger to political pressure. In fact, he almost seems to laugh at it. How else can one explain his visit to his family's France chateau at the height of the 2010 floods? There is also the matter of him losing legal immunity if he gives up the post of President. He, therefore, has little incentive to step down of his own accord.

The other scenario involves Zardari being forced out against his own will. Who is capable of forcing such a resignation? It comes down to either the PPP or the army.

Historically, the PPP establishment has cherished the Bhutto legacy but not Zardari. Adding fuel to the fire, Zardari has defanged long-time PPP members and has instead relied on his personal network to govern. However, despite the fact that they have misgivings about Zardari, the PPP stalwarts are loath to express them in public. For the time being, they seem content waiting for Bilawel Bhutto to come of age, as opposed to ousting Zardari and risk destabilizing the PPP. It is, therefore, unlikely that the party is attempting to remove Zardari.

This leaves the army.

In them, we certainly have a precedent for forced resignations. However, are the necessary conditions present?

When Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif in 1999, the country had experienced a decade of democratic bad governance and nepotism. The PPP and PML-N had taken turns making a mockery of the democratic process and conditions were ripe for the army to step in and make the claim of saving the country from the politicians.

More than a decade later, no one can deny the presence of bad governance and nepotism. The democratic arena is still a circus. However, the current democratic setup has emerged from a very public movement to remove the general in power. This, combined with increased media scrutiny of state affairs, has meant that the public is not yet ready to cede complete civilian power to the military. The military is, no doubt, well aware of this. And so, despite the presence of Memogate, it will continue to publicly support the civilian government.

Zardari will continue to govern while the rumour mill continues to churn.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Qureshi Gamble

Deng Xiaoping famously said, "It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice."

It is with this sense of pragmatism that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf welcomed Shah Mehmood Qureshi into their fold.

The PTI have been pining for a political heavyweight for some time now and their prayers have been answered in the form of Qureshi. He brings with him over 20 years of political experience and has been head of the Punjab chapter of the PPP.

How does his arrival bode for the PTI's future?

I have written earlier about why bringing on any member of the old political class - not just Qureshi - may do the PTI more harm than good.

Qureshi is a Sajjada Nashin. A Makhdoom. He is guaranteed votes largely on the basis of his inherited title. In this sense, he represents the very dynasticism that Imran Khan says he is against. By bringing him on, the PTI is sacrificing at least part of their vision. For a party which sees itself as energizing the youth, such a sacrifice may have severe long-term consequences.

As well, Qureshi has been awarded a senior post within the PTI. There is speculation that the awarding of the post may have helped seal the deal to bring him over. If this is true, it will likely not sit well with at least a few PTI members who have been with the party since the beginning.

Having said that, there are a number of ways that the PTI can play this to their advantage.

Qureshi's inherited power may very well be the antithesis of what the PTI claims to stand for. But barring a seismic, overnight shift in social values, inherited power will remain a fixture in Pakistan for a long time to come. Bringing Qureshi in is less a betrayal of vision, and more an acknowledgement of the prevailing social norms that one needs to operate under. It demonstrates that the PTI is aware of ground realities in the less urban areas of Pakistan.

As well, the PTI can rightly point to Qureshi's actions during the Raymond Davis affair and offer him as an example of a politician unwilling to compromise on his principles.

Qureshi's political rival in his Multan constituency is Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, a senior leader in the PML-N. Given Qureshi's success in securing a National Assembly seat in 2002 and 2008, there is a strong chance he will defeat Hashmi again and be re-elected in future elections. This would significantly undermine the PML-N and is in line with the PTI positioning itself against Nawaz Sharif.

Finally, Qureshi may offer the PTI a path into Interior Sindh, an area where they haven't been able to make inroads. How might this occur?

Ever since his resignation from the Foreign Minister post, Qureshi has been unequivocal in distancing himself from Asif Ali Zardari. Recently, he termed the PPP a "Zardari" league.

However, Qureshi has always spoken approvingly of the Bhutto legacy.

Leading up to his announcement to join PTI, Qureshi met with Ghinwa Bhutto and Mumtaz Bhutto. That Qureshi chose not to hold the rally in his Multan home constituency, but rather in Ghotki, Sindh is another indication that Qureshi's long-term strategy may be to ally himself with PPP dissidents - like Ghinwa and Mumtaz Bhutto - who want to promote the "true" Bhutto legacy. Regardless, this may be one of the only ways the PTI can extend into Sindh.

It's too early to tell whether this gamble will pay off. What is certain is that, for the time being, the PTI is holding all the aces.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Judge, Jury, not Executioner

Chief Justice Chaudhry is playing his cards just right.

At the moment, his Supreme Court is busy grilling the various players in the Rental Power Plants case. The case involves the awarding of government contracts to firms that have not been able to meet the country's power generation needs. The case is a suo moto case, which means that the Supreme Court has initiated it on the basis of news reports and/or citizen appeals and despite the absence of technical requirements for a case. Besides this particular case, the Supreme Court has initiated suo moto cases that dealt with issues as diverse as the Karachi security situation, the NICL scam, the Hajj scam, the Sialkot brothers lynching, the Sarfraz Shah shooting, and missing persons in Balouchistan.

At first sight, these cases seem random. In fact, there is a common thread running throughout these suo moto cases: judicial activism.

Judicial activism occurs when a judge inserts their personal considerations into a ruling. By selectively picking which cases are suo moto, the Supreme Court judges are exercising their personal opinion. For a lot of people, such activism conjures up images of Supreme Court politicization, and ideologically motivated interpretation of the law. The correct way forward, such people say, is to exercise judicial restraint and limit judicial power by not initiating cases for which technical requirements haven't been met. These people don't realize - most likely, they choose not to realize - that, if used properly, judicial activism can introduce some much needed government accountability and social reform.

Is there, as some detractors worry, any evidence of Supreme Court politicization? Far from it.

The ruling on the Karachi security situation implicated all major political parties in Karachi. The NICL case was brought forth against a member of the PML-Q. The Hajj Scam implicated several ministers in the ruling government.

Is there, on the contrary, any evidence of the Supreme Court willing to use the hammer of judicial activism to constructively reform society? No doubt.

The Supreme Court has played the part of the Judge well. But it has gone one step further. Much like the Jury that sifts through the evidence and pronounces the defendant innocent or guilty, the Supreme Court has sifted through the evidence and found the presiding government and law enforcement agencies guilty. It has pronounced this guilty verdict by initiating cases that affect the larger society - corruption and security cases - despite the absence of full technical requirements for case initiation.

But the Supreme Court has not overplayed its hand. Remaining true to its judicial identity, it has merely recommended action, and has stopped short of playing the final role of Executioner. In doing so, it has taught a valuable lesson to other government institutions: it is possible to incrementally reform society without overstepping your limits.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

An anti-corruption strategy

Less is more.

This applies well to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a Pakistani government agency charged with fighting corruption. Somewhat paradoxically, shutting down the NAB would do more for anti-corruption than the NAB could ever do by remaining open.

Recently, opposition leader Chaudhary Nisar of the PML-N challenged the PPP government's appointment of the NAB chairman. Chaudhary has done this in the past; last year, he successfully challenged the NAB appointment of Justice Deedar Hussain Shah. Such politicking is quite common when it comes to the NAB. For every NAB news story involving the reimbursement of scam victims or successful prosecution of corrupt officials, there is another involving political machinations by one political party against another. Politicians view the NAB less as an anti-corruption body and more as a vehicle for political point-scoring.

And lest one believe that the PML-N opposition party is sincere in its criticism of the NAB, the purpose of their criticism is not so much reform of the NAB as it is criticism of the government for the sake of criticism itself. This is evidenced by the fact that the PML-N are planning to replace the NAB with their own version of anti-corruptionism, the NAC.

How seriously the PML-N takes the issue of corruption can be gauged by the fact that it wants the head of its proposed NAC to be a sitting judge of the Supreme Court. In other words, it would like to discard the fundamental democratic principle of separation-of-powers by combining the roles of the judiciary and the executive in a single person. A sure-fire path to corruption.

Assume, for a moment, that we can move beyond these political games. Can an institution like the NAB successfully enforce accountability? Ironically, the NAB itself suffers from an accountability problem.

Like other parliamentary systems, the Pakistani government has 3 branches: the executive which executes laws, the legislative which writes laws, and the judicial which interprets laws. The NAB is an executive agency and, as an executive agency, its members are appointed by the President. When a country is intent on fighting political corruption, the last thing it needs is for the ruling party to appoint the anti-corruption watchdogs.

The actual task of rooting out corruption is a drawn-out and systemic process that takes generations. It can't be attributed to a single individual or government. Rather, it requires steady reform of the existing judicial system and existing law enforcement agencies. Such a strategy would ensure that government does not become needlessly bureaucratic by an endless parade of politicized anti-corruption agencies. It is also entirely in keeping with how corruption has historically been stamped out in other societies.

How might such a strategy play out in Pakistan?

The 2010 floods that ravaged the country provide an illustrative example. After the floods, the provincial government of Punjab constituted a Flood Inquiry Tribunal which investigated the government response to the floods. The tribunal published a report (part 1 and part 2) that concluded that the Federal Flood Commission as well as the Irrigation and Power Department were accountable for lapses in the flood response. Among other things, the report recommends cooperation amongst the various flood-related government institutions for the creation of an Integrated National Flood Management Plan. It also recommends the creation of a National Water Policy / Plan and notes that the official National Water Policy is still in draft form and has been awaiting approval since 2005 (!).

Any political party which works to implement these report recommendations would do more for accountability than the existence of an "anti-corruption" institution could ever do.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tehreek-e-Insaaf: Idealism meets Pragmatism?

With the recent release of his autobiography, I feel compelled to write something on Imran Khan's political career. Most pieces concerning Khan's PTI relentlessly target its dismal electoral chances without providing a clear rationale. Amongst these, there are a few well-written exceptions.

To analyze the PTI's chances requires an understanding of the Pakistani political system.

It is a system that operates on the basis of blood/tribal ties. For the most part, this holds true in both rural and urban areas but such ties are more prevalent in rural areas where approximately 60% of the population resides. Leaving aside urban areas, which are competitive enough, has the PTI made inroads into the rural areas where the majority of votes reside? Is the PTI able to appeal to tribal links?


The Pakistani political system is one that requires distribution of favours. This involves courting influential figures in the political and business community before elections for the purposes of gaining support and then repaying such figures with government posts and kickbacks after the elections. Is the PTI willing to play this game?

Again, no.

Presumably, the PTI wants to eradicate these evils. But it needs to come into power to do so. And therein lies the problem. To become electable in the very near-future, the PTI needs to temper its idealism with pragmatism. Any reasonable person would argue that this is a good thing. After all, isn't politics all about being pragmatic?

However, this would be a mistake.

In the past, Khan has stated that there is more to being a party leader than simply running after the prime minister post. He is absolutely right. He has repeatedly stressed the importance of the youth vote, which further highlights the long-term nature of his strategy. In this sense, he has displayed a vision lacking in most politicians.

On the face of it, there isn't much harm in pragmatically working with like-minded members of other parties. But there is grievous harm in giving up your vision.

Khan's challenge is being pragmatic enough to forge alliances with experienced politicians while holding on to his vision; this is easier said than done.

Consider some of the possible new PTI entrants. Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi is the former foreign minister and a senior PPP figure. Bringing him on would secure rural votes; it would also, at some level, perpetuate the dynasticism that PTI claims to be against. The same could be said, in varying degrees, for a number of other possible PTI entrants including Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, as well as Awais and Jamal Leghari of the Leghari clan.

Besides, given the political clout of people like Qureshi and Hashmi, Khan would be better off not loading PTI with such heavyweights as they may very well replace Khan's vision with their own. And without Khan's alternative vision, the PTI would stand for nothing. A more sound strategy would involve recruiting less experienced politicians who have nonetheless been tested at the national level and aren't such an obvious part of the old ruling elite. It would then be left to Khan to use his considerable leadership skills to ensure his vision is successfully implemented by the party members.

That is the only way forward for the PTI if it wants to establish an influential and alternative position on the political landscape.