Are Pakistan’s government and opposition ready to reconcile?
Even if one believes that the two main opposition political parties were coerced into supporting recent amendments in military acts which unambiguously authorize the Prime Minister to grant an extension to service chiefs, the unlikely cooperation could lead to a new era of reconciliation between said parties and the government.
Until recently, the government and opposition were not even on talking terms. A manifestation of the breakdown in communication is their inability to agree on the appointment of Election Commission members against the two positions which became vacant about a year ago. In the meantime, the Chief Election Commissioner retired on Dec. 5 2019, and his position has not been filled so far.
Due to the widening gulf between the ruling party and the opposition, the government was also unable to pass some important laws as the opposition has the majority in the Senate. During the first parliamentary year which ended on 12 Aug. 2019, the Parliament was able to pass only two acts while the President had to promulgate 7 ordinances bypassing the parliament.
However, the ice seems to have started melting. Government and opposition parliamentary leaders have met in the National Assembly Speaker’s chamber to discuss cooperation on the passage of other pending bills. More significantly, the two sides have discussed the possible amendments in the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO), 1999 which was a huge bone of contention.
How has this thaw in an icy relationship become possible?
There are several explanations and more than one may apply. First of all, as is the case in any confrontation, both sides have suffered in the past 16 months since PTI took over. Several high ranking opposition leaders were arrested by the country’s anti-graft agency, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) during this period, even though NAB failed to present a convincing case before the courts which started releasing them on bail.
In some cases, bails were granted on medical grounds. While one leader after the other came out on bail, the credibility of NAB and the government, in general, took a serious hit to its public perception.
The inability of the government to get laws passed from the parliament and its massive dependence on ordinances was a huge embarrassment for the government.
Many circles may blame the government and opposition for selling-out and making a deal, but rhetoric aside, the new working relationship of the government and opposition is good news for the country.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Some of the laws needed to be passed as part of the government’s commitments to international entities like the IMF. Delays or failure to pass the laws could carry serious consequences for Pakistan’s economy and international standing. Pakistan has agreed with the IMF to amend the laws relating to State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA), State Owned Enterprises and Anti-Money Laundering regime. The amendments to these laws are to be introduced in the parliament according to an agreed schedule and it is a natural expectation that these bills be passed by the parliament.
Since the passage of these laws is not possible without the cooperation of the opposition, the government has softened its stand both in terms of its rhetorical and practical steps.
In addition, the government had presented an ambitious election manifesto and a 100-day agenda. In order to achieve the targets set in these documents, it was required to carry out an ambitious legislative agenda. This will be possible only if a working relationship is established with the opposition.
The government may also have realized from its experience of the last 16 months, that mere accusations against opposition parties and leaders are not effective in winning public favour. People want performance and results and the government, therefore, needs to focus more on its performance than mere criticism of the opposition. Furthermore, verbal attacks against opposition leaders provoke greater bitterness and even more aggressive responses from opposition benches.
Many circles may blame the government and opposition for selling-out and making a deal, but rhetoric aside, the new working relationship of the government and opposition is good news for the country. The accountability process may continue as per the law but running aggressive campaigns which appear to be political victimization is counter-productive.
One hopes the PTI government has learnt its lesson and is ready to seriously sit with the opposition to not only agree on critical appointments in the election commission but also for passing critical laws.
*The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat