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Old Wednesday, May 14, 2008
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Still chasing democratic shadows

By Shireen M Mazari
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

It is difficult not to respond to the absurdities being visited upon us by the US from all directions and the whining of Ambassador Patterson last week was a tempting issue to respond to. However, other more significant developments have occurred since then and after all, if the US finds many in Pakistan willing to accept the largesse of the US without considering the costs, then the blame must lie with our own people for selling this great nation short for a few junkets and military trinkets thrown our way while our neighbour to the east gets the real goodies and benefits. But it certainly does not endear the US to the Pakistani nation which has seen the US' shadow over all the negatives that they have had to and continue to suffer at the hands of their various rulers as well as the price extracted from those who do not fall into line. Pakistanis are not an ungrateful people and a small example will be a useful illustration from which Ms Patterson could draw a valuable lesson.

Unlike the US, with whom our leaders have attempted to cosy up to whenever they can, Cuba is a country with whom we did not have full-fledged diplomatic relations when the earthquake struck in October 2005. Yet the response of that country, beleaguered as it has been since the US' continuing embargo against all international norms, was simply amazing. A medical team accompanied by a deputy minister stayed in the earthquake zone for six months with no fanfare or publicity. This led to the establishment of full diplomatic relations and a Cuban commitment to train over 900 doctors in Cuba in the field of preventive medicine and public health -- medical areas the Cubans are known to excel in globally. All this with no political or other demands. Notwithstanding the bureaucratic hurdles confronting Cuba and the poor beneficiaries of this training scheme, the Pakistani people showed their gratitude in the way they embraced the Cuban medical team and the embrace of friendship the first Cuban ambassador, himself the son of a leading Cuban revolutionary, continues to find here. Ms Patterson could certainly learn a lot from the Cuban interaction with the Pakistani people! She would also find some uncomfortable answers if she examines why some of our nationalist political leaders are not prepared to make public their visits to the US and their interactions with US officials!

But coming to more critical events that have brought despondency and despair to the nation as the expectations that the new democratic dispensation would be responsive to the people's demands for the restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary have finally been shattered. Almost every Pakistani living here, and many outside, was committed to the cause of the judges' restoration. Political workers and apolitical citizens by the dozens, paid with their lives for this commitment, especially on May 12, 2007 in Karachi, and also in Islamabad. Others came, often with their families, to protests and braved the ire of the state. The media took the lead as it suffered a backlash of restrictions and persecution. Political leaders, who had been unable to galvanise the nation on earlier counts, saw the whole nation mobilised on the judiciary and media issues.

With the nation increasingly challenging the legitimacy of the rulers, the need for a new legitimate political dispensation became unavoidable and fair and free elections became a necessity. However, while many people debated the worth of elections prior to the restoration of the judiciary, eventually they cast their verdict in the face of commitments for the restoration of the judiciary by the major contestants. While the nation, ever hopeful of fresh political starts, hoped for a new political dispensation reflecting the electoral mandates, it forgot the backroom deals brokered by the US (and Patterson wonders why Pakistanis dislike the US) to protect its own interests in Pakistan. Even the NRO was pushed into the background after initial critiques, in the hope that at least the commitment for the restoration of the judiciary would be fulfilled.

Unfortunately, since the February elections we have been put on a rollercoaster with meetings across the world between the main political players. What by all legal accounts should have been a simple matter has been complicated by factional interests, political rivalries and backroom commitments and deals. Why else would US officials loom large over the political discussions between the Pakistani coalition partners? Surreptitious meetings and continental dashes have added to the increasingly bizarre political machinations going on presently. Meanwhile, the nation is plummeting into food and energy crises -- with no remedies in sight. Notwithstanding the responsibility of the Aziz government in these crises, and many of us had been pointing these out at the time, after over six weeks in office some remedies should have been instituted. Instead, the blame game continues as prices of food and fuel continue to spiral. Why is no one asking where the excellent wheat harvest has gone? Why is every successive government determined to deny farmers the market price for wheat while taking no action against the hoarders who take this cheap wheat and hoard it or smuggle it out of the country?

Yet despite all these issues of survival, the nation's greatest hopes were pinned on the new elected dispensation moving immediately to restore the judiciary and establish a truly democratic and responsive government. With the withdrawal of the PML-N from the cabinet -- and the frustration was writ large on the party's leadership these hopes have been destroyed.

As for democracy, where do we stand today after the holding of the February elections? There is a government and parliament in place, but where are the decisions being made? Certainly not in parliament which has yet to become effective in terms of its committees and substantive debates. Worse still, the political leaders of the main parties in power remain outside the elected and parliamentary ambit. Comparisons have been made to the present coalition dispensation in India where the leader of the Congress Party has chosen not to hold the prime ministerial office. However, the comparison is false because Ms Gandhi is an elected member of the Indian parliament and it is elected representatives that hold political and ministerial posts.

Perhaps most distressing is to see how real power is being wielded by unelected holders of advisory posts -- be it in efforts to thwart the timing of bye-elections or to threaten the free media. If our ruling elites are so admiring of the all things Indian, they should also see how it is Indian elected representatives who hold cabinet positions and wield power, and parliament is supreme -- as the US has found out in the case of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Of course, there are advisers to the PM in the PM Office but if they head a ministry then they have to seek election to either the upper or lower house of parliament and they are not members of the cabinet till then.

In Pakistan, regardless of the people's sacrifices, the voice of the nation gets drowned in the cacophony of vested interests, backroom and extra-constitutional deals. For those of us who have chosen to stay in this land of ours through the good times and bad, it is a case witnessing that the more things seem to change the more they remain the same. That is why there is a chink of light piercing through the political darkness in the PML-N showing its responsiveness to its electorate on the judicial issue, its leadership's decision to contest elections and have its elected parliamentarians as the negotiating team on the judicial issue. We cannot let our resiliency and hope be destroyed because that is our greatest weapon against the forces of repression.

The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Email:
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