Will Asif Zardari’s recent statement shock the Prime Minister out of his royal slumber? Can we now hope that his PML-N government will move beyond scoring points against the PTI on the issue of rigging and try to find a better way to resolve the matter? Will the tiger change its stripes? Or will it keep digging its grave, throwing shovels of dust in our eyes?

Though a bit of an absolute monarch himself who ran his parliamentary government and his PPP from the presidency, Asif Zardari could actually teach the Prime Minister a thing or two about winning over political foes. One could question his undemocratic bargaining chips and his mockery of principles when it came to negotiating with other parties, but the former president has an impressive record of rescuing his PPP government from tight spots by engaging with those challenging it, be it the opposition or difficult coalition partners. He also didn’t shy away from taking a step back when the situation so demanded. This surely helped the PPP government complete its term despite its corruption scandals, dismal performance and widespread public resentment. The Prime Minister and his PML-N are following a different path, and not a good one.

The problems with how the Nawaz government has chosen to conduct itself generally, and more specifically regarding the issue of rigging in 2013 elections, are many. Asif Zardari might have behaved like an absolute monarch within his PPP but at least his attitude towards other parties in the parliament was not so. He might have been reigned in because the PPP did not have an absolute majority and the outcomes of his political deals might have gone against the principles of democracy, but at least he reached out to his political opponents and gave them respect in the parliamentary tradition. The PML-N leadership is not willing to do even that.

As if making light of PTI’s demands in the parliament for more than a year was not enough, it changed the head of NADRA in the middle of the night and recently allowed the election tribunals to sit on the petitions before them for longer. The much-delayed constitution of the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms is yet to be notified. The ruling party’s response to PTI’s genuine demands has boiled down to dilly dallying, political point-scoring, personal attacks and diversionary counter-attacks against the PTI KPK government. Certainly, these steps are not very reassuring for the PTI and all those who would like the electoral process to be more credible.

The PTI is not a bunch of some thousand protesters out to hijack the ‘mandate of millions’ like Tahirul Qadri’s supporters. It is the second largest party in the country in terms of votes polled and only a few seats behind the PPP, the largest opposition party in the parliament. Shouldn’t the Prime Minister be more responsive to the PTI’s reservations and demands? Instead of announcing a marathon Jashn-e-Azadi to counter PTI’s long march, why couldn’t he invite Imran Khan for talks to thrash out the issues at hand? Why can’t he do it even now?

Admittedly, the stakes are too high for the PML-N. Otherwise, as Asif Zardari has said, heavens will not fall if some constituencies are opened up for scrutiny. The ruling party understands that the exercise could undermine the credibility of its mandate and its legitimacy, and proof of rigging in the four constituencies could bring the entire 2013 elections into question. Rather than digging in his heels on the issue, shouldn’t the Prime Minister be negotiating with the PTI, and now the PPP as well, to find a solution that could reform the electoral process without dismantling his government?

Clearly, the Prime Minister and his party-men are once again high on their mandate. Asif Zardari has rightly said that people elected Nawaz Sharif to serve as the Prime Minister and not to become an absolute monarch, but the PML-N leadership would rather not make that distinction. And as in the party’s previous stints in power, it has chosen to interpret its majority in the National Assembly as a mandate to do as it pleases, regardless of its constitutional limitations and the parliamentary ethos. As it is, Pakistan’s parliamentary system is weakened due to lack of democracy within political parties. By refusing to recognize the importance of the opposition and the primacy of dialogue for resolution of differences, the PML-N is weakening it further.

Granted that this is not a good time for political confrontation and launching a movement. Granted that Imran Khan’s narrative about rigging has lacunas; especially his naïve assertions regarding the role of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in the whole affair. Also granted that he has failed to suggest what needs to be done and how things could move forward. Still, there is no doubt that the issue of rigging and electoral reforms is central to our democracy project. Besides, more than him, it is the government that should feel the responsibility to save the system, especially since it is in a position to actually do something about it.

For Asif Zardari, his recent statement just might be another bargaining chip to seek concessions for his party’s government in Sindh or in corruption cases against its leaders. After getting what he wants, he might revert to his stance of standing with the PML-N government against all undemocratic moves to dethrone it, with some face-saving inconsequential agreement to reform the electoral process thrown in. Given his machinations as the President, one could easily expect such slippery cut-throat politics from him. Conversely, he might stick to his stance and restore the PPP’s reputation as a party that conducts itself best when in opposition.

Coming days will tell which way our democracy is going. It would emerge stronger if Asif Zardari sticks to his stance, Imran Khan refines his narrative and strategy and the Prime Minister comes down from his royal horse to talk to the opposition parties for finding a way forward. Hopefully, Asif Zardari will use his charm and consensus-building skills to bring the parliament together on this one. Quite a wish-list, but one should always hope for the best.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

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