Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi
The threats to the Pakistani state include socio-cultural intolerance, religious extremism and the use of violence to pursue self-articulated narrow ideological agendas. If these negative trends are coupled with a faltering economy, there is little hope for a stable, democratic Pakistan.
ANALYSIS: New opportunity and old challenges…
Reconciliation between the PPP and the MQM is a major relief to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani who had been running around last week to muster support to save his government. The MQM has adopted a two-step strategy to join hands with the PPP. In the first stage, the MQM is returning to the official benches and will wait and see if the prime minister fulfils the commitments made to the MQM regarding its political interests in urban Sindh, especially Karachi. If the MQM is satisfied with the progress and the revived PPP-MQM relationship works smoothly, it will return to the federal cabinet in the second stage.
It is a love-hate relationship between the PPP and the MQM. They often dislike each other’s politics but, as the two major political forces in Sindh, they cannot afford to fight with each other all the time. They build pressure on each other to improve their bargaining power but tend to settle down after some noisy discourse and troubled interaction. The MQM has one advantage. Its political domain is limited to urban Sindh, enabling it to stay focused on limited issues and function more coherently. The PPP, on the other hand, is not merely entrenched in rural Sindh but has support in other provinces too. It has to accommodate the concerns of a wider and diversified political spectrum, making political management a cumbersome exercise.
The changed political environment is expected to enable the federal government to devote more attention to serious political and economic problems and the growing polarisation between the religious groups and others in the aftermath of the shocking assassination of Salmaan Taseer on January 4, 2011.
This assassination by a religious zealot has brought to the surface what most of us were not prepared to admit: the major threat to the Pakistani state and society comes from within. These threats include socio-cultural intolerance, religious extremism and the use of violence to pursue self-articulated narrow ideological agendas. If these negative trends are coupled with a faltering economy, especially neglect of the poorest of the poor, there is little hope for a stable, democratic Pakistan.
These problems cannot be addressed without taking tough decisions about the economy, governance and political management. No government can do this without the support of other political parties and societal groups. The opposition political parties are not willing to extend any support or offer an alternate plan of action to resolve these issues. Their partisan outlook does not enable them to look beyond their immediate political interests, i.e. the failure of the federal government.
The latest crisis developed when the JUI-F and the MQM separately decided to quit the coalition and move towards the opposition. Both had their own grievances and decided to walk away at a time when the federal government was under internal and external pressure. However, no single opposition party could move a vote of no-confidence against the federal government. Only the PML-N can initiate a vote of no-confidence but it cannot succeed without getting the support of at least three parties and independent members. It could not put together such an opposition coalition quickly enough.
Two other factors restrained the PML-N. First, Nawaz Sharif cannot become prime minister because he is not a member of the National Assembly. Therefore, the PML-N would have found it hard to create a consensus within the party on any other name and then win support from other political parties to secure the required votes for removing the present prime minister, getting a new prime minister elected and then ensuring a vote of confidence for him. Second, the PML-N knew that its coalition government would have to depend on the support of the smaller parties, including the parties that had betrayed the PPP. This would have made the PML-N hostage to the smaller parties.
The PML-N has therefore adopted the policy of waiting and watching. However, it decided to build pressure on the PPP by giving two deadlines — one of three days and the other of 45 days — for taking steps to implement the proposed PML-N agenda. The PML-N ultimatum has lost relevance due to the return of the MQM to the government’s side.
If Nawaz Sharif forces the PPP ministers to quit the Punjab cabinet on the non-fulfilment of his agenda, it will amount to shooting himself in the foot. The PPP and the PML-Q are likely to work together, which will increase pressure on the PML-N government. If the PML-Q is able to win back its forward bloc, the PML-Q-PPP coalition may opt for a vote of no-confidence against the PML-N government in the Punjab.
The stage for the return of the MQM to the government was set by the latter’s decision to withdraw the enhanced prices of petroleum products on January 6, a questionable decision on economic grounds. However, it gave political space to the prime minister to win back support and provide face-saving to the MQM to return to the PPP’s side. This decision has also won some goodwill for the PPP at the public level.
The federal government has now retrieved its majority. However, long-term survival depends on winning more support and addressing acute economic problems that seem to have compounded with the reversal of petroleum prices, low industrial productivity and little new investment.
The federal government faces the additional challenge of resurgent religious extremism and militancy that will consolidate its gains in the aftermath of the assassination. The orthodox religious groups, unable to assume a commanding role through the electoral process, view street agitation and intimidation as effective instruments for pursuing their religious agendas. They are expected to continue with street agitation, emotional religious appeals and threatening statements to force their choices on society.
Opposition parties like the PML-N, PML-Q and others are not expected to help the federal government stem the current tide of religious extremism. They are interested in their immediate agenda of getting rid of the PPP government. They are not bothered about the long-term implications of religious extremism and militancy for the state and society.
The federal government needs to pay immediate attention to sustaining a stable coalition, quickly taking steps to salvage the economy and curbing the growing polarisation between the religious and other sections in society. It is a tall order but anything short of this threatens the long-term survival of the federal government, if not the current democratic political order.
The writer is a political and defence analyst