Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Hullabaloo Over The "Minus One Formula"

Pakistanis love conspiracies and rumors, like to disregard facts on the ground, and absolutely hate trusting the democratic process. Through the confluence of these factors rises the entirely strange and bizarre spectacle of the "minus-one formula", a belief that is neither a formula nor limited to minusing one. Let me explain.

In a manner so sudden that it must be orchestrated, the question of Asif Zardari's future as president of Pakistan has become the most-discussed political issue of the day. Rumors have been swirling in Islamabad and within media organizations across the country that a "minus one formula" is about to be inculcated, and that in an action half way between a coup de grace and a coup d'etat, the "establishment" is in the process of ensuring Zardari's removal from power. Nobody, least of all me, knows where these rumors came from. Nobody knows who exactly is supposed to deliver the final blow. And nobody knows who the relevant actors are, ostensibly pulling strings behind the scenes: the military? Renegade PPPers? Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N? Some combination of all them?

Frankly, I don't care. It is irrelevant. And while it remains speculation at this point, it is disturbing enough. As someone unused to defending Asif Zardari, let me make a few points.

First, Asif Zardari is the constitutionally elected president of Pakistan. There was nothing illegal about his rise to power, nothing untoward, nothing fishy, no rigged elections, no intimidation of voters, no ballot-stuffing, no acts of violence against rivals. It was a free and fair election. The PPP got the largest share of the vote. By the way the system is organized, they got to nominate a Prime Minister and a President. They nominated Yousuf Raza Gillani and Asif Ali Zardari respectively. This is the very simple story of Zardari's ascension to the office of president.

Do all Pakistanis like this fact? No -- page 43 of this report makes that clear. But this does not matter. There is a right way and a wrong way to express dissatisfaction with President Zardari's performance. The right way is to vote out his party when the time comes. The wrong way is to force him out unconstitutionally before the time comes. Pakistan has suffered enough of the latter. If Zardari is removed from power by any means other than a national parliamentary election, it would spell yet another blow against sustained democracy in the country.

As a general rule, Pakistanis are notoriously impatient with their rulers. Within a few months or years, they yearn for the leadership to change, procedural niceties be damned. This is a deeply damaging and problematic political ethos. A populace cannot complain about military takeovers and "dictatorship", come out on the street to fight to insert civilian rule, and then promptly abandon principles when the results are not to their liking. The very point of democracy is that it affords a guaranteed, mechanized and systematic way of removing leaders that the public is against -- it is not a guarantee of good governance or concerns about the common man. It is time the Pakistani people understand this distinction. Voice your displeasure all you want, but supporting non-democratic machinations to removing democratically elected leaders is a red line no one should cross. There is a time and a place for that -- called "elections" and "the voting booth" respectively.

Second, and related to this point, it is time for Pakistan's civil society and political parties to band together and flatly reject the notion of this "minus-one" nonsense. The silence from Nawaz Sharif, champion of democracy and freedom and liberalism, is deafening. This has been a long-standing Pakistani tradition: whenever civilian leaders look to be vulnerable to undemocratic removal, political opponents look to reap the rewards instead of speaking up for the democratic process. Though it would not surprise the more cynical amongst us for this trend to continue, it would be nice if Pakistani political parties unequivocally and loudly dismiss the possibility of "minus one".

Third, it should be emphasized that the actual functional process of "minus one" is unworkable. As Cyril Almeida argued in an excellent column last week, the options for removing Zardari from power -- the judiciary/NRO, an internal PPP revolt, impeaching him in parliament, the Americans or the Army making a move to a song rehearsed time and again -- are either logistically unworkable or extremely unlikely given the socio-political situation in Pakistan. You never say never in this wild country of ours, but it would require a curious set of circumstances to actually bring this about. In December of last year, I made the point that people often confuse a government's weakness for a state's vulnerability. Just because Pakistan is in a dicey position does not mean its leaders are. Zardari is, at present, perhaps the most impregnably positioned civilian leader in Pakistan since his father-in-law. It would take some doing for him to be forced out.

Fourth, it bears emphasizing that nobody knows anything about the origins of "minus one". I treat most claims from public officials in Pakistan with a degree of skepticism, and this goes doubly for a PPP that claims to be an anti-establishment party. The politics of paranoia, victimhood, and personal persecution have been practiced by the PPP every time it has been in power -- under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, under both of Benazir's terms and now.

It could certainly be the case that there is a set of masked and nefarious actors in the background -- the "establishment" -- working to destabilize the PPP and its government, as all its leaders seem to be claiming. It wouldn't be the first time that democratically elected governments or their leaders have fallen prey to "conspiracies". But it could also be the case that these conspiracies exist nowhere other than their heads, and as most South Asian leaders are wont to do, are imagining their rivals as being up to all sorts of shenanigans when in fact nothing is actually happening on the ground. While I am more likely to believe the former story -- as I said in the beginning of this post, the fact that these stories kicked up so quickly and simultaneously is too much of a coincidence -- I am not prepared to dismiss the latter out of hand. In Pakistan, as ever, the truth remains elusive, primarily because politics here is almost by nature a backroom affair.

Fifth and finally, while I do not support this minus-one nonsense, I do support the blunting of the president's powers. Pakistan's current political system is the bastard child of a parliamentary system on the one hand, and ad-hoc measures to aggregate power in the office of the head of the state on the other. It is time to do away with this needless confusion. The country's political system was envisaged to be a parliamentary one, with the Prime Minister the head of the government and the President -- if one existed -- solely acting as a titular and symbolic head of state.

President Zardari can fulfill a great service to the country, as well as carry out his campaign promises, by getting rid of the infamous Article 58 2 (b) of the constitution, that allows the President to dissolve parliament at a moment's discretion. Editorials in Dawn as well as The News have both argued for this position too -- that the President should stay, but take the brave step of giving up this ridiculous and anachronistic power. While it would be unwise to hold one's breath on this front, one can hope that the constitutionalists amongst the PPP pressure Zardari to take this bold and much-needed step.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the survey report, it is quite telling that zardari is not faraway from "nobody" option

Although a red herring to this article, pages 16 19 20 27 25 are quite disturbing while 27 is simply hilarious

Ali said...


Also, I know it's been harped about enough these days but:

There is just far too much interference of the army/other agencies in Pakistani politics. And had their contribution been a positive one – it would have been appreciated – but what they've done so far is to the detriment of pakistan.

It’s because of them, that after 60years of independece we have to choose between a collection of inept leaders like asif zardari, nawaz sharif, various mullahs, altaf hussain etc.

Had they allowed the voter to vote every four years – many of these guys would have been weeded out of the system. it’s a shame, the agencies, in their attempts to ‘place’ leaders at the top have given us problems so deep that it will take us much longer to recover because of their 'phaannay-baazi'.

Ahsan said...


Haha yes. I specifically remember writing a post on this public opinion survey but I can't find it right now. Oh well.


I agree with you on the over-interference bit on the part of the military and the "agencies" but I don't know about the other point you make: that if they were properly voted out, we wouldn't see them again. Pakistani leaders seem to have a remarkable talent of coming back again and again. To be fair, both Nawaz and Benazir WERE voted out of office at various times and yet came back more popular than ever. This is why I refuse to discount the possibility of Musharraf making a full-fledged return to politics in about 5-7 years. Pakistanis have very short memories.

Ali Qureshi said...


They come back popular as ever because they never get to complete their terms.

If you start a four-year university undergrad degree, and due to some personal grievance or extraneous circumstances you are forced to drop out of school in year 2 --- then everyone's sympathies will lie with you - your friends and family will go out of their way to help you.

Similarly, our politicians have mastered the art of dhandora-peetofying (almost rightly so..) about incomplete terms/missed opportunities/inability to fulfill their campaign promises. Their argument is that had they been given a full term, they would've done wonders.

And the oft-made argument that the voter is too uneducated to make a "right" choice is also invalid - a vote every four years is the voter's greatest education, and the fact that we've been denied that has left us in a lurch with a bevy of inept candidates who keep finding their way into office.

greywolf said...

i would hardly say there has been interference of intelligence agencies in pakistani politics which has deterred good politicians from rising. the problem is our politicians are simply inept and quite plainly disingenuous. in addition, any interference that occurred at least had the blessing of more than a few civilian leaders. the current scandal involving the MQM and the jinnahpur maps has proved that the ISI and the army, though acting wrongly, were being guided by civilian leaders, to the benefit of civilian leaders. its a reality that the army and the intelligence agencies are powerful. and they use that power as they are directed by the civilian leadership. the process of holding elections in pakistan, should it be free and fair as it has been the past two times, will hopefully weed out bad politicians. but who will govern then? imran khan and his one seat? the jamaat and its confused politics? the JUI? the nation is at the mercy of the whims of an electorate that is easily jaded, and at the same time as ahsan said, forgets too quickly. i for one will be praying for a return of president musharraf. pakistani politics needs a patriot who tried to help not himself, but the poor awam at large.

Ahsan said...


Maybe you're right, but I'm still not convinced. For you to be right, the voters' logic, in effect, would have to be: "You know why I'm voting for this person? Because they never got to finish their last term." I just don't think that's likely. Votes in Pakistan are either bought through patronage or feudalism, or through ethnic affiliation or some combination of both (for the most part).

Either way, we can both agree on the fact that not allowing politicians to complete their terms is obviously damaging to the institutions necessary for democracy in the country.


Look, I see what you're saying, but Musharraf made his own share of mistakes (Chief Justice, May 12, not nipping Lal Masjid in the bud etc).

As someone who supported a variety of actions he took (maybe not the man himself), I can say clearly that Pakistan should move on from him. The savior mentality in our politics is greatly damaging. Is there only one man in a nation of 170 million who is capable of leading us? Surely not.

Sadia said...

Writer has very rightly criticized over rumors of minus one and has analyzed true picture of Pakistani politics; but in last he suggests that PPP and other segments of society must pressurize president Zardari to get rid of 58-2b. I think there is no such requirement of any pressure upon president Zardari, he is inheritor of Bhuttos who laid their lives for democracy. President Zardari knows how to run country and reinstate 1973 constitution. Zardari and Gilani led PPP government has already set a parliamentary committee to achieve consensus upon constitutional reforms to repeal 17thamendment and 58-2b. Raza Rabbani is leading this committee and it has already met thrice. Gilani is an independent prime minister and making all decisions with his choice, even some decisions are not necessarily according to choice of president Zardari but President Zardari is already playing a role of democratic president with much harmony and tolerance.

Ali said...


For you to be right, the voters' logic, in effect, would have to be: "You know why I'm voting for this person? Because they never got to finish their last term."

The logic in effect is, ek bloody "aamerr" nay meray leader ko hang kardiya tha, or another one booted my leader out of office etc. - people have strong affiliations to their leaders in Pakistan. While feudalism does distort the system, voters (everywhere in the world) are also very emotional when electing their leaders.(case in point: Obama)

As far as feudals are concerned, I allude to my earlier point. Had elections been allowed to take place every four years - maybe the kissan/villagers would have voted the same feudal into office once/twice/three times/ four times. If the elected feudal did nothing for them in 12 years (unlikely, even mqm fixed its ways in karachi) some point the people in this age of new media and globalised world would have risen up - "yaar, you havent done shit for me - look at how constituency-x has improved over the last 10 years".

Im no proponent of feudalism - land reform is essential. However, feudalism isnt why we're here. We are too quick to judge that voters in the villages are like herd. I know so many families who while living in villages have such high aspirations for their childern, so many illterate mothers who realise the importance of an education for their kids etc. etc.

Either a revolution would result, or the leaders would fix their ways.

Again. Elections coupled with a vibrant political process with no agency interference is the solution to all our problems.

Anonymous said...


this elections every five years concept to me is valid only if our election machine was not so corrupt, our judiciary not stacked with criminals, our police efficient, and our politicians not the same people as those who make our sugar for us. trust me, elections in pakistan, even if they were every five years could not have been free and fair with so much wrong with the system. buying votes, intimidation, gerrymandering, stuffing ballots has all been too common. the one solution to all of this is the local government system, because that truly will allow voters to vote in and out of office those who they believe are best for them, even in feudal areas. it puts the onus on the district nazim to deliver. he/she is responsible just for that area, not a whole swath of a whole city. if this system goes (and i feel it might because of the current anti-musharraf hysteria that is being whipped by NS and his followers), we can all say goodbye to democracy in pakistan. we'll be back to the 90s once again. president zardari and the PPP will have the lights off to do as it pleases, without a system of holding its representatives accountable.

Ali said...

"this elections every five years concept to me is valid only if our election machine was not so corrupt"

I agree.

But a lot of what has happened in the past cannot happen any longer. The media is a wild animal, and the civil society sick of the same problems you speak of.

Elections will be fair and free, more so than they have ever been.

This is turning out to be a long discussion and i'm going to try to wind this up: In my opinion, this organic what we must go through. There are NO short-cuts. NONE.

I believe that we are far better of than all the arab world (in every way, other than economically) to be experiencing the steady natural development of our institutions.

Now, only if we can just get our economy moving, the pessimists amongst us are in for some great surprises.

greywolf said...


sadly the media was a wild animal only when it came to president musharraf. the concept of 'lifafa journalism' never seemed so much in vogue as it has the past few years. journalists are clearly being bought and sold by various political parties to do their bidding for them. does anyone even know that kashif abbasi has been banned by the current 'democratic' dispensation? what happened to our lawyers and our civil society outrage over gagging the media? does anyone know that our lawyers have been on a rampage as of late? beating up and harrassing whoever they deem. why are we happy because we got rid of a 'dictator', who quite sadly did more for democracy than any of our current illiterate feudals did ever. i am positive that our future can be bright, as the current generation and its mindset goes to to the grave and is replaced by the new younger generation, who to me seems much more patriotic and full of energy. also, i am not arguing for any short cuts and certainly dont believe in any military takeovers anymore. our current predicament will dawn upon our voters hopefully sooner rather than later.

Nit Picky said...

Though I agree with your general point:

In order for Zardari to be a 'constitutionally' valid president doesn't he need to prove his educational qualifications?

Proof of course means that his degree should belong to a university that preferably, you know, exists.