Yesterday, while Hafeez Sheikh was attempting to give the budget speech, a group of opposition parliamentarians attempted to accost him and the Prime Minister in an act of protest. In the accompanying ruckus, a short-lived fist fight broke out, which regardless of its length and significance, prompted some commentators to whine about the lack of evolution in our political, and specifically, parliamentary culture since the 90s.
Now to put this into perspective, people usually remember that particular decade (88-99) as being the lowest point for democratic politics in the country - what with 4 elections, 4 unwarranted dismissals (5 if you count Junejo's), constant interference by the military, political victimization, accountability witch-hunts, and constant party fragmentation. The more one reads about the dysfunctionality and the pettiness of it all, the clearer it is as to why Gawalmandi witnessed mithai distribution in 1999.
A week or so ago I realized that apart from the big headline events (elections and dismissals), the entire 90s remain a fairly understudied and murky era, full of shabby intrigue and backdoor politics. One of the few accounts from that time, Mohammad Waseem's 'The 1993 Elections in Pakistan', documents the fall of Nawaz Sharif's first government, the role played by different institutions and political parties, and most of all, of political machinations by the establishment against one government or the other. Here are a few excerpts that highlight just how volatile things were back in those days:
(March-April '93: Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif is flexing his muscles against the President, Ghulam Ishaque Khan, and the rest of the establishment in a bid to increase his political power. In the most recent tussle - over the appointment of the new COAS after Gen. Janjua's death - the President gets his way and General Waheed Kakar gets the nod ahead of Mian sb.'s candidate. The leader of the opposition, Benazir Bhutto, has submitted a three-point agenda which includes the dismissal of Nawaz's government, formation of a national government, and fresh elections. Some members of the opposition have floated a call for the army to step in and conduct fresh elections)
"The rising tension between the president and the prime minister over the issues of repeal of the 8th amendment (58-2b) and Ishaq's re-election as president made both of them woo the leader of the opposition. The PML president Junejo's death was followed by Nawaz Sharif's successful move to become the new president of the party. This alienated the Junejo group in the PML which made a common cause with President Ishaq. So did Chief Ministers of Sindh and NWFP. The three opposition alliances, PDA, NDA, and IDA, followed suit. Nawaz Sharif desperately tried to salvage the situation by nominating Ishaq as the PML candidate for the forthcoming presidential elections. However, it was too late in the day. Finally he addressed the nation on television on 17 April, 1993, and blamed the man who was a symbol for the federation, meaning President Ishaq, for conspiring against his legitimate government. The next day, the PPP leader presented the resignation of 41 MNAs to President Ishaq who soon after dissolved the National Assembly, announced fresh elections to be held on 14 July, and installed a caretaker government under Balakh Sher Mazari"
On its own, this paragraph provides an apt summary of just how arbitrary the entire process was. The more one reads about politician complicity and expediency, the easier it is to blame them for the entire mess. However, it's of paramount important to remember that Pakistan was still working under Zia's surrogate political framework, and that many of these politicians had emerged from the culture of atomized, patronage-driven politics which was prevalent during the 80s.
Coming back to the drama, Nawaz Sharif's dismissal led to a flurry of activities in the provinces, as well as in the courts:
"The dimissal of the National Assmebly for the 7th time in Pakistan's history, immediately led to the battle for Punjab. A motion of no-confidence against Chief Minister Ghulam Hyder Wyne, a protege of Nawaz Sharif, was tabled by 6 opposition MPAs. On 25 April, the no-confidence motion was adopted by 157 against 20 in a session marred by the worst pandemonium in Punjab's history. Later, Speaker Manzoor Wattoo secured a vote of confidence as Chief Minister by winning 158 votes. "
Soon after the dissolution, the then Speaker Gohar Ayub, who by the way is making his way back to PMLN after a 10 year sojourn with the PMLQ, challenged the dissolution of the National Assembly in the Lahore High Court (Pindi bench) as malafide and a result of personal vendetta. The court gave its short order on the 25th of May, 1993 and ruled that the reasons given for the dissolution (official corruption, partisan behavior of the speaker, and elections as a panacea for all ills) were invalid. Nawaz Sharif's government was restored by a 10 to 1 verdict in favor, with the dissenting vote being that of one Sajjad Ali Shah.
(In Shah's defence he said that the reasons for dissolution were no different than the ones given in 1988 and 1990, and hence overturning the President's order would make the court appear contradictory).
"The post restoration phase of Nawaz Sharif's government was characterized by its gradual loss over things and, more significantly, its unimaginative and rigid approach towards the opposition. Its supporters in Punjab filed a no-confidence motion against Chief Minister Manzoor Wattoo, who quickly advised the Governor to dissolve the assembly. In response, a petition was filed in the Lahore High Court, which issued a short order on the 9th of June, nullifying the Governor's dissolution and restoring the assembly."
Reading up on all of this, and then comparing it to the existing situation shows real, substantive proof of democratic evolution in Pakistan. There may be several reasons for this change in politician and party behavior - like elite consensus on procedural democracy, changes in the legal environment (most notably the repeal of the 17th amendment), recognition of differences between establishment and politician interests, and a general rise in trust levels between opposing camps - but what's important is that they seem to be having an impact on the culture of parliamentary politics. Even with constant court petitions and that one incident of Governor's rule, nobody is asking anyone to intervene and dissolve the government, which a) wasn't the case during the 90s, and b) is a fairly positive step by all standards.
So like I said at the start, one fistfight in parliament, or one PMLN petition in the court asking to review the speaker's decision on Gilani's candidacy does not mean we're still stuck in the 90s. Things are moving forward it seems, and with another five or so years of uninterrupted and less volatile procedural democracy, we could see ourselves making some real gains towards establishing elected supremacy and towards increasing civility, openness, and common sense in our political space.
Few random thoughts that occured whilst reading the book
1) Sajjad Ali Shah made the PPP happy, and the PMLN unhappy with his dissenting note. He got the Chief Justiceship under BB's second government, but had his court attacked by MSF and Muslim League thugs in 1997.
2) In a list of every nonsensical thing that has happened in Pakistan's electoral history, the two caretaker governments of Balakh Sher Mazari and Moeen Qureshi would have to rank somewhere near the top. The former's cabinet consisted of 58 members, which prompted The Muslim to call it a 'collection of "Saints and Sinners" led by an acting Prime Minister "every inch an elegant hair-dresser'. (lulz).
The latter (Qureshi) is remembered in these ambiguous words: "On balance, Moeen Qureshi emerged not only as Mr Clean but also as a janitor who had come to Pakistan to clean the Augean stables." (double lulz)
3) Manzoor Wattoo. The man's a Punjabi legend, who deserves nothing short of 2 blog posts for his exploits during the 90s. Will get to work on those soon.