Same politics, same results

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It is difficult to find evidence to support the view that the future conduct of our political leaders is going to be any different from the past. The real hope for political change lies in the civil society movement led by the lawyers’ community
The All Parties Conference in London, where 38-odd political parties gathered and issued a declaration calling for the restoration of democracy, was an impressive political show, something we have not seen in decades. It might be termed as historic, if not a turning point in our political history, for the solidarity political parties with different ideological outlooks, political agendas and constituencies showed on some fundamental issues. The two most important points of consensus were preventing President Musharraf’s re-election from the outgoing assemblies, and establishing Parliament’s sovereignty under the 1973 Constitution.
Many of its other points make the APC declaration a rather loose and unfocused document, but that is understandable in view of the mind-boggling diversity of political actors that took part in its deliberations. They represented the entire spectrum of Pakistan’s political divide, from religious to nationalist and mainstream secular parties, each pushing for accommodation of its points of view in the final statement. This is not really a weakness but the usual stuff of politics; parties and political leaders are concerned about their specific agendas and political identities.
The London Conference may be the beginning of a new series of discussions about evolving a common political strategy to achieve the participants’ common political goals. I am not really sure that this is the case, as the challenge of launching a political struggle against the current political arrangements in the hot and humid streets of Pakistan is far greater than making emotional speeches in the cool environs of London.
What makes me a bit pessimistic about all the opposition parties sticking together or even being on the same page is their leaders’ immediate interest in coming into power by aligning themselves with the establishment. The past history of our political parties and behaviour of their leaders testifies to this. I do not see democracy, constitutionalism, rule of law and political equality, what many prefer to call a liberal agenda, anywhere at the top of their preferences. The only true democracy they have acknowledged and presented as an example in the past was their own term in power. All other governments are accused of ‘sham democracy’.
It is difficult to find evidence to support the view that the future conduct of our political leaders is going to be any different from the past. Nothing has changed during the past seven years of military rule. While shouting slogans of democracy and constitutional politics, parties and groups have continued to strike their individual bargains with the military regime. The most despicable was the deal MMA cut on the passage of the 17th Amendment. The ruling Muslim League under Nawaz Sharif disintegrated overnight with his overthrow. Barring a few new faces, most of the members of federal and provincial cabinets and party stalwarts are former members of the PMLN. By changing political loyalties our elected leaders have quite often put themselves in a garage sale and have gone to the highest bidder.
This is symptomatic of traditional elite politics, which does not show any deference to principles. The structural flaw of the mainstream political parties, dominated by the land, caste and tribe-based individuals, is serious and makes them incoherent, weak and vulnerable to the personal choices of their top leaders.
I also believe that political circumstances, party outlooks and priorities are not fixed. They change, but then we have to understand the dynamics of change, the underlying motivations and expected outcomes that any political shift is likely to bring about.
I do not foresee any change in the way political parties are internally governed or in the self-centred politics of their leaders. Some of the political parties, notably Pakistan People’s Party, do not want to make commitment to any common move to prevent Musharraf from being re-elected from the present assemblies, in the last months of their term. Although the PPP has maintained a posture of just plausible denial on whether it has a deal with Musharraf or not, the Conference makes it clearer than ever that a deal does exist, except on a few minor issues. The party does not conceal anymore, as it did in the beginning, that it has been secretly negotiating with the regime.
But are such behind-the-scenes political deals about restoration of democracy or about acquiring power by coming to ‘some understanding’, which can mean so many different things?
The real hope for political change does not lie in elite politics but in the civil society movement led by the lawyers’ community, which has stood its ground like a rock. This movement, that many in the political parties and the establishment tend to see as non-threatening, is the true harbinger of political and social change. It is very different, and it has to be, from the popular anti-regime movements of the past that focused on removing a government, always producing another military regime.
The new social movement is more concerned with structural change in our political system than with re-arranging the roles of our garage-sale political figures. Political parties and leaders with corruption and illegal actions in their record books may feel equally threatened by the social movement, as it aims for independence of judiciary, constitutional politics and rule of law.
I wonder if this fear might not be driving some parties and their leaders into the embrace of the establishment. Independence of judiciary and rule of law are the most powerful non-violent and effective means of forcing state institutions and greedy public representatives to stay within the limits of law.
The question of lawful exercise of power is a fundamental one in a civilised society, which we aspire to be. The ongoing social movement, increasingly popular among all enlightened sections of the society, will have a long-term, positive effect on our political future. It may not change the attitude of the elite politicians, interested in personal gains by using the mythology of representation, in the immediate future. Nor is it about revolution from below — not at the present stage. Its success would be measured by how it results in strengthening the judiciary’s independence and rule of law.
We can see an emerging split in our society between the elite-establishment nexus on the one hand and middle-class-orientated civil society movement on the other. Some political parties may join the civil society movement, with long-term struggle in mind. This change would be more substantial than the fuzzy pronouncements of political parties unlikely to stay in the same fold on any issue that matters.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.