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The legacy of the PPP government

The Pakistan People’s Party got a monumental mansion built in Lahore for its supreme leader towards the close of its tenure (2008-2013), which, if doesn’t outdo, by all accounts matches the residence of their arch-rival located in the same city.

Nothing brings out the great gulf between the nation and the political elite than Mr Zardari’s chateau. If for nothing else, his government will be remembered for this imposing structure and other such extravaganzas.

Of course, there’s much more to the legacy left behind by the PPP than the real estate ventures. Like a balance sheet, it has both credit and debit sides.

The PPP government is credited for being Pakistan’s first popularly elected government to complete its constitutional tenure. In point of fact, the PML-Q government (2002-2007), rather than the PPP’s, deserves this compliment. It may be argued that the PML-Q was the king’s party and that the 2002 elections were held under the tutelage of a military ruler.

The counter argument can be that the PPP government was also a creature of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) fathered by the same military ruler, who later presided over the 2008 electoral exercise. That said, in a political system where civilian governments have been booted out by the establishment at will, completing five years is no mean achievement for an elected dispensation.

Parliament controlled by the PPP and its allies carried out some useful legislation, at the top of which was purging the 1973 constitution of several of the distortions inserted into it at the behest of military rulers.

Not only that, the 18th Amendment went further and granted greater autonomy to the provinces by doing away with the concurrent legislative list. The 20th Amendment laid the foundations for conducting elections in a fair and impartial manner.

The government waged war on religious militancy, though it was not successful in containing the menace. That said, the war on terror is a drawn-out one and can’t be won unless society by and large puts its weight behind government endeavours.

In foreign affairs, arguably the most momentous decision taken by the PPP was to normalise trade with India. The positive list for import from India was replaced with a negative list, which was to be phased out by the end of 2012 culminating in the grant of MFN status to New Delhi. The decision signified the application of a fresh approach on the part of the Pakistani government to a perennial problem: how to live with a country much bigger and traditionally deemed an antagonist. However, regrettably the government failed to honour its commitment.

Ironically, the biggest achievement of the PPP government contained the seeds of its failure in most other respects. From day one, the party had set its eyes on completion of its constitutional term.

Its policy of national reconciliation was also calculated to achieving that end. Nothing bad about that. However, when only survival is the be-all-and-end-all of a government, it tends to become oblivious of its responsibility to the people.

The government, in particular the one that is popularly elected, ought to work for the greater good of the citizens. It should provide security to the people, improve their lot and give shape to the economy. The PPP, however, turned all such notions on their head. It provided security but only to the VIPs. It drastically improved the lot but only that of the party leadership and their cronies.

The PPP inherited a fragile economy, which is corroborated by the fact that within seven months of its taking office (October 2008) the government had to knock at the door of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ward off a balance of payment crisis. However, on its part, it did little to improve economic management. In fact, the economy was given a short shrift.

Karachi, the country’s business hub, continued to burn and was ruled by gangs and mafias. The provincial government, also that of the PPP, didn’t act decisively, for that would have brought it down. Public sector enterprises went from bad to worse and the government had to put in heaps and heaps of money just to keep them alive.

The energy shortage got more acute. According to a Planning Commission-USAID report, power sector inefficiencies slowed economic growth on average by two percent per annum during the last five years. No serious attempt was made to shore up public revenue, for that would have antagonised some powerful constituencies.

The PPP had only one answer to the economic problems: just borrow from commercial banks and have the central bank print money. Stagflation – a combination of sluggish growth and high inflation – was the inevitable result of such policies.

By its acts of omission, the ruling party did much to erode the people’s trust in the government. It made the masses believe that they should not look to the state for their security and well-being. This seems to be the darkest aspect of the PPP’s legacy.

President Zardari and his party men maintain off and on that they reigned but didn’t rule, and that the media and judicial ‘interference’ prevented them from delivering to the people. However, such claims are meant only to cover up their incompetence and bad governance.

The PPP introduced a novel legal doctrine, viz the executive has the right to review the legality or constitutionality of judicial decisions and should give effect to them only if the same are found to be legal and constitutional.

This is a dangerous doctrine. If every public functionary or party to a case starts judging and then setting aside, as the case may be, judicial decisions, the difference between the constitutional and unconstitutional will wither away. Interpretation of the law and the constitution is in the end the domain of the apex court, whose decisions need to be implemented.

The PPP makes much of the fact that President Zardari voluntarily surrendered his powers under the 18th Amendment of the constitution. Though no one should deny Mr Zardari that credit, it is also undeniable that by choosing to move into the presidency, he struck at the very position that the head of the state is supposed to hold in a parliamentary democracy: He has no effective discretionary powers; he conducts himself in an impartial manner; he speaks for the entire nation; he doesn’t represent or support any single political party, faction or alliance; he does not indulge in politicking; he does not involve himself in making, preserving or breaking alliances, strengthening or weakening political parties. Regrettably, the manner in which Mr Zardari has conducted himself during the last five years runs counter to the aforesaid role of the president.

This write-up can be finished on a positive note. Notwithstanding all acts of omission and commission of the PPP government, things are beginning to change, with events taking place that were well-nigh inconceivable in the not-too-distant past. We have a judiciary which, despite all its failings, is asserting its independence and is not shy of bringing the high and mighty to the book.

Efforts are being made to take the lid off the mysterious activities of the agencies. The defence budget is now largely an open book, whose size and content are a subject of intense public discussion and criticism. These developments are a big consolation for those disappointed with Mr Zardari and his team.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail. com

Hussain H Zaidi, "The legacy of the PPP government," The News. 2013-04-01.