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Old Sunday, September 07, 2008
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Sunday, September 07, 2008

President Zardari

Asif Ali Zardari is the president of Pakistan. After his huge win on Saturday, he will be walking into the presidency with a huge burden of history on his shoulders. The massive margin of his victory is such that the election may seem to have been almost a formality however, his job will be anything but that. From the jail cell in which he spent 11 years of his life despite having been convicted of no crime he has taken a place within the most elevated building in Islamabad. For him, in both personal and political terms, it has been a momentous journey. It has also been thankfully, given our unfortunate experiments with military interventions -- a democratic one. Unlike the last presidential election we saw just eleven months ago, when former president Pervez Musharraf won a controversial poll boycotted by almost every group aside from the ruling PML-Q, this time participation has been full, the process fair, albeit with a result that was predictable. In terms of federal integrity, the support Mr Zardari received from the assemblies of the three smaller provinces is significant.

But, there is no time to look back. The challenges ahead are enormous. The issues the president, as the most powerful man in Pakistan, will need to address are towering. For a starter he needs a quick and complete makeover of his image from a wily politician, winding his way up, not mindful of whether he was breaking his promises or losing his credibility, to an international statesman who carries weight and is taken seriously. To do that he must quickly fulfil all the promises that he broke in the past, now that he has come out of the wall of political and physical insecurity that may have bothered him in the past. He must do away with the 17th amendment, ending the tussle for power between president and parliament, a power which repeatedly rocked the system and plunged it from one catastrophe to the next. The president will also be moving into the presidency at a time when multiple crises face us on other fronts too. From across the western frontier, US forces threaten to continue their assaults. The sovereignty of the country is at risk. Within its territory the economic situation seems to be worsening by the day. While the rupee has been able to slow its slide against the dollar, on a day-to-day basis, hyper-inflation affects every citizen. Forecasts of food riots have been made, fuel costs may rise further and a new increase in power rates looms.

There is also the lingering issue of the judiciary, as lawyers continue their protests. The bitterness created by it will linger. Political animosity between rival parties grows by the day and threatens to add to existing difficulties and problems. An unacknowledged civil war of low intensity is being fought in Balochistan, across Punjab masses of unemployed young men seek occupation and the threat of terrorism lurks everywhere. Finding means to solve these problems is obviously no easy task. Mr Zardari can hope to achieve it only by uniting people and patching over the political, ethnic and sectarian strains that threaten to tear Pakistan apart. For this, he must build a relationship of accommodation with other political parties; he must weave together a consensus on how to tackle militancy and he must infuse within his own party the spirit and will it needs to roll back the despair that engulfs people. The feeling that a kind of paralysis exists must be ended. Ending the feeling of political uncertainty and doubts about his ability to achieve these goals, the new president must rise to the occasion, show magnanimity, unite the nation, provide them trusted and dignified leadership and take the political process further. Asif Ali Zardari's ability to achieve this will determine how he fares over the years ahead and how a man, who in a break from the country's patriarchal tradition draws power from a woman, is eventually treated by history.


Supply-line politics

The trucks carrying goods and fuel supplies to allied forces based in Afghanistan through the border point at Torkham will no longer roll through Khyber agency each morning. In what is being interpreted as a response to the US ground attack in South Waziristan that killed 20 people, including women and children, orders have been issued to political authorities in Khyber to halt this supply line. Growing unrest in tribal areas and the possibility of attacks on the vehicles is being cited by local authorities as a possible reason for the decision. If indeed this measure has been taken to express anger over the US assault on its territory, it seems strange the Pakistan government has not seen it fit to make a more open announcement to its people. Instead, reports have filtered through to the media from Khyber. The orders have been issued verbally; there has been no clear-cut statement as to the reasons. Public outrage over the killing of innocent civilians and the audacious violation of sovereignty is acute. The government must say how it plans to counter the American actions. The cutting off of supplies, as a concrete action, would appear to be one means to do this.

Surely it offered the government an opportunity to prove something was being done. It is uncertain how far the cutting off of supplies will hamper US-led forces in Afghanistan. It seems likely alternative routes to acquire goods can be set up by them, even if this involves greater costs and more complex logistics. But for all this, the gesture from Pakistan is immensely important. The country cannot stand by and allow foreign invasions. The third US attack in three days took place on Sept 5, as US planes bombed North Waziristan. Three children were among those killed. For Washington, these deaths are nothing more than 'collateral damage'. For Pakistan, they amount to the senseless murder of innocent people. Fury across northern areas is rising. Islamabad cannot allow such US action to go unchallenged. The decision to stop the transportation of goods is one step. It must also be backed by others so the message can get through Washington's seemingly impenetrable walls.


New oath

Three of the deposed Supreme Court judges have taken a new oath administered by Chief Justice Dogar, and resumed duties. Others seem likely to follow. The deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry stands increasingly isolated. The government has said his position will be considered once he takes oath. The tactic adopted to bring back the judges had become clear as high court judges took new oaths. It is now being followed through to its logical conclusion. The likely end will be a return of almost all the judges, except Justice Chaudhry.

If we put on the lens of principle, there is much that is dubious about all this. The PML-N, the party that had most vociferously advocated the judicial cause, has cried 'foul play' and alleged that rather than adhering to the Bhurban agreement, the PPP has opted to bring back judges in a manner intended to hurt rather than boost the standing of the judiciary. From the perspective of the PPP, it has of course been able to deliver on its pledge to restore judges, using a means that indirectly keeps out Chaudhry a man about whom the party has many reservations.

Once more, judicial independence has been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Talk of a 'package' that would guarantee an independent judiciary has faded almost entirely away. The repercussion of this will be felt in the future, even after the lawyers who have continued their brave movement for over a year vanish off the streets and return to the courtrooms that have stood abandoned by many of them for so long.
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