Raza Habib Raja
In an expected move the PPP and PML (N) have finally estranged thus marking the end of a unique period of “cooperation”. Although there were undercurrents of rivalry through this time period but nevertheless it was a very interesting and at times significant partnership.
The most interesting thing was that in the centre PML (N) in opposition role was friendlier where as in Punjab where PPP was actually a coalition partner, PML (N) took a harder stance and hence rifts and squabbles continued to surface right till the end. It has been a strange time period best defined by oxymoron: friendly opposition and unfriendly partnership.
At the same time, the cooperation did lead to smooth passing of 18th and 19th amendments. In fact despite the security situation- further exacerbated by power shortages and inflation- the past 3 years have been actually witnessed a stark deviation from the past politics of needless confrontation. The two mainstream parties actually talked and cooperated on some critical constitutional issues. Whereas this may have been less than perfect in the eyes of our media hawks but given the context of emerging democracy like Pakistan, this was a remarkably mature development.
The best thing about the two mainstream parties in the past three years (barring the removal of Shahbaz Sharif in February 2009) has been their tacit understanding that while they are natural rivals but at the same time they represent the best hope for the still evolving democratic set up. During the past six months, the Zardari led government has been under threats several times but reluctance of Nawaz Sharif prevented a change in the regime. Likewise, PPP’s support in Punjab also kept things relatively stable for Shabaz Sharif despite the fact that he has never enjoyed absolute numerical majority.
However, I think both Punjab Government and Federal Government needed real opposition and in this context it may not be a totally bad development. It has to be remembered that politics is not abstract and nor it is merely confined to constitutional and ideological issues. Governance is important no matter how much a certain section of people claim that insistence on it is somehow equivalent to falling for establishment narrative. Governments eventually govern and try to solve myriad of every day issues of the common man. Moreover, eventually the democratic system earns its credibility if among other things it also delivers good governance. Both Punjab and Federal government, once the parties have parted ways will be facing stronger opposition and hence it is hoped will try to deliver. In fact PPP government in the centre has been taking steps in the right direction as is evident by its crackdown on corruption and reconstitution of a smaller cabinet.
Both of these parties are mainstream and have competing ideological opinions within their folds. If PPP has Sherry Rehman, it also has Baber Awan. Likewise in PML (N) ideological stalwarts range from Khawja Saad Rafique to Ayaz Amir. Both these parties, more than any other party, represent plurality and diversity of Pakistani populace though PPP has wider representation. A healthy democratic system would need both the parties offering real opposition in their respective spheres of governments.
However, at the same time I hope that there is no repeat of 1990s. While real opposition is a welcome thing and an integral part of a democratic polity but at the same time confrontation a la 1990s will merely undermine stability.
A mature democratic system eventually has a tendency to move towards a two party system particularly if the population is not sharply divided according to ethnic, linguistic and geographical lines. In Pakistan we have a strong presence of regional and ethnic parties apart from these two parties. Even these two parties have started to show dominance of regional colors. Despite having an overall majority PPP enjoys more popularity in Southern Punjab and Rural Sindh whereas for PML (N) is dominant in Northern Punjab and Hazara region. The emerging regional characteristics make it even more essential that parties do not enter into confrontation otherwise regional rifts may widen to undermine the integrity of the state.