It’s too easy right now to find a villain in the headlines. Consigliere Babar Awan who may just represent the worst of what the PPP has come to stand for: a specialist in crisis, the unnecessary provocateur. Rehman Malik, the tawdry character who explodes now and again with some puzzling statement that capsizes all hitherto knowns. Husain Haqqani about whom no one’s quite yet sure if he’s more evil or more genius. The prime minister as a one-man PR-machine for the government’s raison d’être: complete term – governance, democracy, heck, Pakistan, be damned.
And then there’s Zardari, the kooky president. In him the spirit of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto has descended with the clarity of revelation. Who, rumour has it, President Obama doesn’t like talking to because, well, he can’t understand him anymore.
Zardari’s been called crazy before – crazy like a fox, that is – but this seems to be a different, more portentous kind of craziness. Should we be worried? Yes. But not for Rehman Malik or Babar Awan. Or Haqqani. Or the Prez. We should be concerned for the PPP which has collectively lost its path, and for Pakistan, which is fast becoming a tavern where madness is sold by the bottle.
This government wants to complete its term. Great idea. Never been done before. But is that enough?
Lest anyone get it wrong, this is not in any way a statement against democratic continuity. A nail is driven out by another nail. Habit is overcome by habit and democracy may just be the best habit in politics. Certainly, the goal is to make democracy the ‘only game in town’ – to reach a point when no one can imagine acting outside democratic institutions; when all the losers want to do is to try again and through the same mechanisms (elections, for instance) under which they just lost.
In essence, to have a majority of people accept that democracy is the best form of government, such that not only does nobody try to change the regime, nobody particularly wants to either. That is the goal.
Is that the case in Pakistan? Here, we have main opposition parties that oppose all kinds of democratic reforms. When they lose elections they look to the military, and now the judiciary, for help. Avenues other than the people’s mandate are routinely pursued. Violence in Karachi – should the army be called in? Memogate – will the army intervene to protect the country’s sovereignty? NRO verdict – will the robes use the uniforms to help with enforcement?
Elections, in essence, are not everything; one could even argue that they’re secondary. What’s primary is to convince everyone involved – the opposition, army, the public and media – that democracy is not a game at which they will constantly lose. What’s primary is to institutionalise the instabilities, tensions and lack of consensus that are the hallmark of transition.
Institutionalised uncertainty – that is the goal.
Where this government has failed most terribly, then, is in convincing everyone that democracy is – has to be – the only game in town. Completing the term, successive elections, orderly transition of power – all this is under threat when people fundamentally question the utility of voicing their dissent through the ballot.
The Zardari government’s miserable lack of interest in governance has put democracy – as an idea – in question. It’s made democracy a laughingstock. ‘Completing the term’ has increasingly come to be seen as blackmail elevated to the level of democracy – possibly the world’s worst leaders using buzzwords like ‘process’ and ‘system’ and ‘continuity’ to blackmail, even gently threaten, us into not quitting the game.
For some, it’s painfully simple: who cares about elections and democracy when this government has put the country itself in danger? Elections as catharsis? No thank you, they’ll say. It’s the same deck of cards. No matter how many times you shuffle it, there will still be the same four Jokers. Why bother?
So here’s the challenge: how to convince people that the government completing its terms could enhance the democratic project.
From the looks of it, it’s a challenge the government is least interested in taking up. Instead, it’s decided to go the lowest common denominator route. On the memo. On relations with the outside world. On the economy. On corruption. On the judiciary – for all problems that confront it, this is the PPP’s response: democracy is under threat. Anti-democratic forces don’t want us to complete our term. PPP versus the world. After all, playing victim is an easier option than developing some grand new ideas or policies.
So thank you PPP. The guardians of the transition to democracy, you’ve done an excellent job of making us question the very idea of democracy. It’s hard not to conclude now that dysfunction is your goal – even if the cost is democracy itself.