The need for united opposition arises from the fact that the ordinary citizens do not enjoy all the civil liberties the way western people do. In democracies, people’s right to civil liberties is respected by courts, governments, political parties and all state agencies. In Pakistan self-perceived strongmen have ruled autocratically whether they were democratic governments of PPP or PML-N or a General’s government.
Take the case of treating the judges of superior courts. PPP’s record is not a bright one; remember the harassment of Justice Sajjad Ali Shah and his family. Mian Nawaz Sharif’s goons, led by a Cabinet Minister, stormed the Supreme Court and the judges had to run for their lives. What General Musharraf did on March 9 was a tad less crude than what had happened in 1997. Factually, there is a strong element of commonality between major parties and the Army itself.
Army flaunts faith in Pakistan ideology and makes others follow it despite its vagueness. It shares the value system of feudals. It is a thoroughly conservative force dedicated to keep the society as it has always been. Now look at major parties: PML-N, PML-Q, PPP or take the innards of smaller nationalistic parties that often pass for being left-inclined. Their leaderships belong to or are descended from feudal class. Socially they are as conservative as any Muslim Leaguer.
All these parties have an unwritten agreement with the military to leave the fundamentals of social system untouched. Society with all its inequities must remain as it has always been. This is how the attraction of offices under the leadership of a General or even a former General is stronger than the facts about fundamental rights and democratic norms. These parties implicitly accept the apologias to the west that these strongmen make about ’doing things their own way’. Pakistanis are supposed to be quite different from western people; they can be beaten by the police and other law enforcing agencies. They can be made to ’disappear’, ’writ of the government has to run’ and so forth in the name of Pakistan ideology.
Even the conduct of a PPP government or the life within the party is autocratic. The same applies to PML-N; the other day its central body left the final decision about election participation to Nawaz Sharif alone. Their acquaintance with democratic working of parties and governments has been more theoretical than real.
Fact is since the two main parties (JUI and PPP) would participate, all others would follow suit. They cannot leave field alone to others. The sight of other parties’ members becoming Ministers of government(s) alone is unacceptable. ’If A can get a ministership or chairmanship of a parliamentary committee, why cant my party allow me to do the same’, a feudal argues. While there is a case for unity because people should have the freedoms a democracy guarantees, so is a case for disunity: the lure of offices has been strong enough to overcome the appeal of democratic norms and methods. After all, participating in a military-led government is seen as doing no great harm to society or their own standing. Since, their ideas on social matters remain undisturbed, what is wrong in participating, in winning ministerships and being happy. Which is a basic case for disunity.
Sad fact is that Army or Army-dominated or Army-controlled governments are actually acceptable to PPP, PML-Q, MQM and many other smaller parties. This is Pakistan’s Rightwing Consensus and it includes the Army and all the other social elite groups. Their relationship with the free-enterprise west is historically close and ideological; their worldview is common with the west. There is however a new contradiction to be noted.
This is emergence of a new middle class, especially in the Punjab — other provinces have not seen the process. Only Karachi boasts of a middle class that is the matter of what is known as civil society. It is relatively affluent and educated. It is aware of the denial of political liberties, freely available in democracies. Their love for democracy is genuine. Today civil society is being led by lawyers, who ran four months long successful campaign for the restoration of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. They mean to continue the movement until they get the restoration of the Chief Justice and other judges now under internment. They need democracy keenly enough and would not rest content until they get it.
But civil society, luminous as it is, is politically weak. When pitted against the phalanx of the upper classes serried behind military-led governments they need the support of either the larger mainstream parties or of left parties if there had been any. As it happens, there are no cognisable left parties.
Destruction of the left was the achievement of the past Pakistan governments. They destroyed students movements, banned unions, prevented teachers from having effective trade unions. The normal industrial phenomenon, trade unions, has been all but destroyed. Most of the trade unionists have been purchased or co-opted; some stragglers are left. The lower social orders have no organization; they have no voice. Their political clout is today zero.
The country’s alliance with the west enabled the CENTO’s anti-subversion funds to help destroy the left groups, trade unions and students’ movement. That had happened in 1960s and 1970s. The Pakistan that used to talk of social inequities, workers, peasants and the Karigars has now disappeared. This weakens the middle class no end because its natural allies would have been the leftists in the fight for all freedoms.
If the idea of a boycott means boycotting the election and going home to sleep, it would surely leave the field to all others no matter if they were opportunists. To be significant, the boycott should accompany a fierce popular agitation for democratic freedoms, beginning with the restoration or the Supreme Court and High Courts as they existed on November 2 last and the Constitution being rescued from the deforming amendments that have been forced by successive generals to make the President all powerful at the expense of a show boy Prime Minister, including what this latest PCO has done. The question of provincial autonomy that will satisfy smaller provinces can no longer be postponed indefinitely. Without an all out political struggle, boycott means nothing. It is a silly thing if it stands alone as some kind of virtuous gesture.
* From The News International, December 05, 2007. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | December 1-5, 2007 | Dispatch No. 2472 - Year 10 running.