The most applauded political consensus achieved during a pleasant London summer five years back proved to be a short-lived one, dashing all hopes of a responsible, ethical and clean democratic set-up.
The agreement signed by the then Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairperson Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) supremo Nawaz Sharif, was appropriately titled as the Charter of Democracy (CoD). Its content notwithstanding, the very fact that the arch-rivals of the political arena of Pakistan had come to a common understanding and had vowed to work together for a stable democracy was in itself a significant event.
The people of Pakistan had pinned all their hopes on this alliance of sorts between the two most prominent leaders of the country. Bhutto and Sharif between them had ruled Pakistan close to a decade. No one else could have a better idea of the issues and the problems. The two also had a shared history of suffering at the hands of the establishment. So, it was expected that together they will be better able to tackle the establishment and might eventually create a democratic dispensation that lasts and thrives.
If the CoD had raised popular hopes, it was not without reason. After all, it was mainly because of the electoral, ideological and even legal and constitutional battles between the PPP and the PMLN that democracy in Pakistan had come to be synonymous with administrative chaos and corruption, economic mismanagement and political mayhem.
But even before any of the two parties could come to power, they started drifting apart. While Sharif was hobnobbing with an alternate political alliance – the All Pakistan Democratic Movement – to the chagrin of Bhutto, he was unhappy that she was talking to Musharraf to ensure herself a safe and trouble-free passage back intoPakistan. Though under serious strains, the accord, however, continued to stick through the political upheavals and militant violence of 2007. When Bhutto was assassinated in December that year, the CoD lost its most important signatory and its single most ardent champion.
After her, Asif Ali Zardari became the co-chairperson of thePPPand subsequently, the president ofPakistan, the roles, his detractors say, he is neither suited nor trained for. It is one of the most-commonly held political beliefs in today’s Pakistan that Bhutto actually wanted him to stay away from politics.
In the run-up to the February 2008 polls and even a few months afterwards, the bonhomie continued. The two sides cooperated informally in the polls and signed the Bhurban Accord for the restoration of the judges immediately after winning a majority of parliamentary seats between them. Zardari also visited Sharif’s home in Raiwind to bury the personal hatchet between the two. Sharif, in return, allowed the members of his party to join the cabinet and vote for Yousuf Raza Gilani’s election as the prime minister.
The moment of truth followed soon. Once in power, thePPPstarted procrastinating over the restoration of the judges, ostensibly due to legal and constitutional reasons but in reality due to the perceived challenges that a Supreme Court under Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry could pose mainly on corruption cases against Zardari and other bigwigs of his party.
As time went by, the distance between the two parties started increasing and they also developed differences over the letter and the spirit of the CoD itself. The PPP was of the view that the CoD did not support Chaudhry’s restoration because he had taken oath under General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s first Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO). The PMLN believed the CoD did not bar the restoration because it was all about fresh appointments to superior judiciary — something not applicable to Chaudhry.
In a symbolic return to their bad old days, Sharif finally met Zardari inLondonin the summer of 2007 and decided to part ways with him. Politics had come full circle; the CoD was dead and buried for all intents and purposes. This first manifested itself when the PMLN put up its own candidate against Zardari in the presidential election, knowing fully well that it had no chance of even putting up a fight. This made it clear that the two parties had closed the doors on mutual cooperation.
There have been some instances even afterwards in which the two parties still managed to work together — most notably in the drafting and passage of the 18th constitutional amendment and the Punjab government where a minority PMLN government could stay in power only thanks to support from thePPP. But for every act of cooperation, there was a corresponding act of antagonism and maybe more. For instance, when the Supreme Court under Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar disqualified Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif from running in election, the PMLN accused the PPP of engineering the verdict. The PPP, on the other hand, accused the PMLN of creating turncoats in Punjab to stay in power.
Having sparred in the public arena for more than three years, the two parties finally find themselves pitted against each other rather than against the forces that have sacked their governments in the past. Instead of keeping their alliance intact to wage a united battle for the supremacy of democracy, they have gone back to the days of mutually assured destruction, relying on the same institutions which kept them apart and fighting in 1990s. While the PPP has cut Faustian deals with its nemesis in Sindh, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), and has eaten its words by bringing the Musharraf- sponsored Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid-e-Azam into the ruling coalition after having called it Qatil League after Bhutto’s murder, the PMLN is moving dangerously close to the military establishment and the Supreme Court, the two institutions that have been historically a thorn in thePPP’s side – as well as the PMLN’s. Its stance on national security issues and its championing of the cause of the judiciary – no matter whether the judges have been overstepping the institutional boundaries – found collective expression when it took the memo case to the Supreme Court over the shoulders of the parliament.
If nothing more, all this should remind the PPP and the PMLN that their common history of political suffering could have provided them more compelling reasons to work together and protect and preserve each other in politics and power than their existing multiple marriages of convenience and coercion do. They have tried the latter in the 1990s with disastrous consequences and they are trying them once more — needless to say, with disastrous consequence.