Wednesday, August 1, 2012

After 2013, Shorter Election Cycles

It’s been some summer. In Pakistan’s tumultuous history, summer seasons are not known for being incredibly politically decisive. It’s just too hot. And a bad time to march outside. But regardless of that, we’ve seen power riots, bombings, cross border terrorist attacks and an uptick in the murder of Shia Hazaras in Balochistan. The horrible monoculture of corrupted, semi-anarchic violence, mixed with high 21st century personal weapons and communications technology we’ve been familiar with in Karachi has spread throughout the periphery of the country. FATA, Balochistan, and to an extent, Gilgit Baltistan, places where there just isn’t enough money to buy protection the way Punjab and parts of Sindh and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa can afford, have been abandoned to a vacuum of militant violence by the establishment, the military, much of the political class, and to a great deal, the ideological hotshots of the Pakistani private consumer media.

This though, has been a difference in degree of violence, we crossed the qualitative rubicon way back in 2005-2007. Back at the ranch in Islamabad, we have seen the real action, the true qualitative “change” happen, where a clash of institutions dislodged the Prime Minister from his elected seat, in the hopes of sending president Asif Ali Zardari packing.

Back in 2007, when everybody joined for a movement to restore the Chief Justice, besides democracy, one principle that was being fought for, was to restore some balance to the equilibrium of institutions that dominate Pakistan at the federal level. In 2007, the parliament was shot through with rigging charges, and was supine at the feet of General Musharraf’s military dictatorship. He was from the Pakistan military, and so that institution held the commanding position within his personalised political set-up. And to kick out the Chief, Chaudhry Iftikhar, Pervez Musharraf’s paranoid intent was to render the Supreme Court supine in front of him.

Fast forward through the Chief’s restoration movement, Benazir’s murder, the unrigged election of a free-er parliament in 2008, forcing Musharraf’s resignation, the election of a President Zardari, the Chief being restored a second time and a couple of wars to take back some districts and here we are, a re-invigorated Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, in the pursuit of having Zardari tried for some old cases, declaring the elected (and now former) Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousuf Raza Gillani in contempt of court for not writing a letter to the Swiss Courts to open a case against President Zardari. President Zardari, whose reputation for corruption has preceded him, is however the sitting head of state and does have immunity from prosecution.

The Supreme Court, having claimed one elected Chief Executive’s scalp at the altar of “Rule Of Law”, has let up for now. Despite the provocative appointment of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf at whose feet the power crisis can be laid as, as Prime Minister, a reticience has come in to kick out another Prime Minister. The court is not falling for the very clear desire it still has to kick out Raja Pervaiz, even though there is a strong lobby for it. Possibly because of the larger distaste in the electorate, and the reaction building up in PPP circles.

There is however a buildup of massive amounts of tension in the system. The case against a member of Chaudhry Iftikhar’s own family is a part of that increasing build up of tension. We do not know which part of the Pakistani right wing, the army high command, the PPP high command or the intelligence apparatus motivated the shady real estate tycoon Malik Riaz, to reveal the allegged corruption of Chaudhry Iftikhar’s son. This put a man like Chaudhry Iftikhar, who’s position in the Supreme Court has usurped some executive authority to take some decisive action. To take down Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani’s elected seat was a desperate move in its own manner.

Considering that 30,000+ Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks in the Zardari-Kayani era, responsibility falls on those who control the levers of power in Pakistan to prevent tension from building up in the political system. Earlier elections after 2013 would aid that.

The right wing, in its senile desperation is turning partially suicidal. And with multiple commercial media avenues open to them, compounded with this government’s governance deficit, they can persuade enough people to oppose the government to create instability. Within this instability, many ordinary non-political people fall collateral damage to death or the loss of their livelihood (a slower death).

Rather than have them mercilessly explode and throw government partisans at the problem, suicidal partisans ready to die, and ready to let innocents around them die, openings must be created to allow some new talent to cycle in, and political frustration to cycle out. This can best be accomplished in the form of shorter election cycles, and an expansion of elections to the local level.
The People and The Power
Source: Feica

The need for more regular elections can be argued in Pakistan even more significantly if we take into account the structure itself of the Pakistani democratic set-up, where it is derived from, and the most visibly significant cases of its application.

Pakistan’s own system of governance is derived from the British Parliamentary system. Our particular exigencies are created by Pakistan’s politicians and the state institutions that oppose them not having incredibly spotless reputations.

In the British system, or if we use its official name, the Westminster System, elections are held every five years, with the obvious method of bringing down a government through a vote of no-confidence. However, the British are not troubled with multiple armed fractious ethnic or sectarian factions, nor are they on a kind of hair trigger nuclear alert with a next door neighbour. Pakistan has all that. The British also tamed their privileged anti-democratic state institution, the monarchy, long ago from interfering in the democratic process, whilst Pakistan’s privileged anti-democratic state institution, the military, still has the capacity to harass the elected set-up. Under these circumstances, taking the political temperature of the public at a more regular interval, if nothing else, but to shore up the civilian and elected side of things, seems useful in keeping extra-parliamentary forces, which are very alive and kicking, at bay.
This is a practical and useful idea. The United States has elections after every two years and that helps clear the air very quickly. I am referencing tangentially at the massive amount of anger that the Zardari government faces, to the point where it destabilises government and creates a gridlock in even starting governance in the face of multiple tragedies. I'm not advocating elections now, when the first elected government since a nine year long dictatorship was bought to an end, has not even completed it’s mandated tenure. I would recommend changing the length of the mandate.

But seriously, in a country like Pakistan, with its fast changing political landscape, and a country where much needs to be changed, five years is a little long between elections. Maybe not five years, but four years would certainly be a more appropriate length of time, after which an election could be held. It could be considered that after 2013, the next elections be held in 2017, rather than 2018, maybe as an experiment.

As a comparison, one could consider the election cycle of the US or India, two democracies Pakistan has to deal with on a regular basis. India has elections every five years, but these are spread out over a month and are a logistical exercise of mammoth proportions. The United States has elections every two years and these elections always politically clear the air pretty fast, and point the way the wind blows amongst the domestic populace. In the last 6 years, three elections have been held, in 2006, 2008 and 2010, in which the population has swung drastically in a different directions every time, from in 2006, throwing the Republican majority out, to then throwing the Republican presidential election candidate under the bus in the face of an economic meltdown, to then revoking that Democratic majority in the lower house of Congress. These wild changes could be attributed to the massive change in desire amongst the American populace, in reaction to Republican mishandling of the government (2006), and possible foreboding for the economic collapse, on to a reaction against the economic collapse (2008). This was followed by what was perceived as regulatory capture (the massive bailouts, and the in-some-quarters resented compulsion to buy health care aka Obamacare) and a reaction against it in the form of Tea Party victories in 2010. The Tea Party victories were compounded by the discouragement of the Democratic base in 2010, because they felt that President Barack Obama did not go far enough in trying to alleviate the worst effects of the 2008 economic crash.

Pakistani democracy needs to be strengthened. And the only way to do that is to take the electorate's political temperature more regularly, so that the public's opinion becomes the ad-hoc gauge for political power. A shorter election cycle will allow us to do that.

Rest In Peace Mr Gore Vidal

A master of the universe, a titan of literature, a bon vivant, a raconteur, witty conversationalist, verbal bomb thrower and a dissident never losing sight of the humour his adversaries presented to him; these are some of the phrases that come to mind when describing Gore Vidal.

An openly gay, upper crust American, Mr Vidal was a noted dissident in the last years of the Bush administration, coining the phrase "the United States of Alzheimer's" to describe the way the United States allowed itself to forget historical lessons. Gore Vidal was openly gay in a time when it was quite scandalous to be so, but the man had a regal air about him that let him get away with saying and supporting things that ordinary men and women could not do so.

This obviously had to do with his privileged upbringing amongst the American elite. His grandfather was a US Senator, Gore grew up around Washington DC, and during his grandfather's tenure, when the senator was blind, Gore Vidal as a child would act as his aide around the US Capitol.

I was first introduced to Mr Vidal and his strident opposition to Bush era policies in the editorial pages of Harpers magazine. Mr Vidal was referenced widely for his insight into the more arcane traditions of American governance echoed by the Bush administration, where a privileged group of overgrown man-children, in the guise of President Bush and his cabal, were running the most powerful country in the world like it was a family owned factory. As opposed to being the beacon of democracy that it touted itself as.

Mr Vidal had a Roman and patrician air about him, a high imperialism, that sought to maintain a peace or more accurately, a balance of power in the world. This was contrasted by the chaos that the Bush clique set off in and around Iraq, in Lebanon, their slow motion disaster in Afghanistan and the drumbeat to a near war with Iran in the mid-2000's. In contrast to this, Vidal came of as an American patriot who wished to maintain American strength by not squandering it in wars, letting the inertia of America's pre-9/11 example work itself. This model of American regeneration still resonated amongst American liberal 2007-2008 when I learnt more of this man. The economic collapse in 2008 put paid to any ideas of returning to a pre-9/11 world and the election of a half-black man as the president of the United States re-defined what it meant to be an American nationalist.

Mr Vidal's evocation of the Roman Empire was sympatico with his literary career in which he had written historical novels, using pre-World War II America and the Roman Empire as settings.

Mr Vidal's self confidence, in the face of his deeply diverging views with the American mainstream could be seen even in his youth, in the years immediately after World War II. He wrote a book in which the protagonist was not only a homosexual youth coming to term with his gayness, but unlike the prevalent moralising against homosexuality, Mr Vidal did not kill off his protagonist to indicate that homosexuality is a sin.

The late and controversial Christopher Hitchens wished at times that he was considered Mr Vidal's heir. Christopher Hitchens opposed Gore Vidal quite strenuously after the latter had made it clear that he knew of this and did not approve of it. There is also something to be said of Christopher Hitchens, the younger man dying much earlier than Mr Vidal.

Mr Vidal had a sharp mind, wit and an encyclopediac knowledge of American politics and history, a fact that he amply demonstrated in his novels.

However, it was obvious that politics, beyond literature was his true passion. In the late '90's and 2000's Gore Vidal, Noam Chimsky and Howard Zinn formed a sort of dissident, anti-imperialist, academic triumvirate against the dominant narrative relevant in America till the economic collapse of 2008. They constantly shot at the image America projected of itself as a nice and caring place. After the United States saw its economy collapse in 2008, this narrative has lost place amongst the young.

Mr Vidal was there long before the housing crisis, the many wars of this generation, and the faux-righteous of a preceding generation.

Mr Vidal said never give up a chance to either have sex or appear on television. Considering how the television genie is well and truly out of the bottle in Pakistan, observing the studied contempt with which Gore Vidal used and treated this vacuous medium is something we could easily learn from. To commemorate him, I have found the best clip possible to sum up Mr Vidal in his own words, which spliced in his famous verbal dust-up with conservative critic William F. Buckley.

Even in this last epoch of his life, the Obama era, he remained sharp as ever. Enough of my words, here's the man himself. Mr Gore Vidal will have the last word.