Historic moment as Pakistan's elected civilian government completes full five year term

There are still challenges to be overcome, but merely surviving is something of an achievement.

 

This weekend saw a historic moment for Pakistan, as a democratically elected civilian government completed its full five year term for the first time ever. In the past, governments have been ousted by the military or by rivals. The moment passed relatively quietly, with a televised farewell address from the prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on Sunday. In an understated address, he conceded that his government had not done enough during the last five years, but maintained that it had lessened the problems it had inherited. He also said that the historic completion of a full term marked the end of a “sinister chapter” of attacks on democracy. "We have strengthened the foundations of democracy to such an extent that no one will be able to harm it in future," he said.

Many judge the government’s main achievement to be surviving at all. This was no small feat. At the beginning of the five year term, few observers thought that the leading coalition would last more than a year. Asif Ali Zardari was seen as an accidental president, who ended up in this position of power only because of the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto. While Zardari remains unpopular, he has gained a reputation as a canny politician and dealmaker, who kept an unruly coalition together against the odds, despite junior partners frequently breaking away or demanding greater concessions.

There has been a lot of focus on the negative legacy that this government has left behind. Pakistan is in the throes of an energy crisis, with power cuts plaguing large swathes of the country. (As I write this, from the capital city Islamabad, the power has gone off for the fourth time today). Terrorist violence has increased, not reduced, a trend which has not been helped by the lack of a coherent government anti-terrorism strategy. Attacks against religious minorities continue with impunity – from mob attacks against Christian communities to targeted militant violence against Shias. Economic growth is sluggish, while corruption is rife and tax bills low.

Yet on the flipside, the positives should not be overlooked. The level of media freedom enjoyed in the last five years has been unprecedented. Although there were some exceptions, in general, the political opposition and media organisations have been able to say what they want. This has resulted in a lot of mockery and criticism of the present government, to a degree that would have been unthinkable in the past. There have also been significant steps forward in the area of constitutional reform, with greater devolution of power to provincial governments and changes to improve electoral practice.

For months, rumours have circulated that the election will be delayed or cancelled altogether. While I was living in Karachi last year, practically every social gathering featured someone declaring that they knew the election wouldn’t be happening for some reason or another. This demonstrates deep-seated public disbelief that this moment would ever come to pass; a psyche borne of decades of last minute interceptions and power grabs.

The challenge is far from over. Now that the National Assembly has dissolved, the ruling parties are in the process of establishing a caretaker government which will run the country while the Election Commission gets things in order. Shoring up the security situation to reduce bloodshed from terrorist attacks during the polls will be a priority. The election schedule has not yet been announced and rumours still proliferate that the caretaker set up will be extended and elections held off for a year or even two.

The crucial point is that for all the misgivings about the present government, the Pakistani public will, for the first time ever, have the chance to express these feelings through the ballot box. The significance of that cannot be underestimated.

President Asif Ali Zardari. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Michael Dugher interview: "A remarkable achievement" for Jeremy Corbyn to be doing so badly

In his first interview since announcing his departure, the Labour MP and former shadow cabinet minister takes aim at the left - and his own side's failings.

On the morning of 18 April, as news broke that Theresa May would make a surprise announcement, Michael Dugher was on the phone to his old friend Tom Watson. By chance, Labour’s deputy leader was “the person who had said most consistently that there would be an early election,” Dugher recalled. “I thought it was likely but once they decided not to have it at the same time as the locals I thought that ship had sailed.”

Two days after May revealed that a snap election would be held, the 42-year-old Barnsley East MP and former shadow cabinet minister announced that he would stand down. Labour allies and lobby journalists mourned the loss of one of Westminster’s characters: a pugnacious northerner full of authentic loathing of the Tories and contempt for his party’s hard-left.

When I met Dugher in his parliamentary office four days later, he told me that he longed to see more of his family (he has three children aged 11, nine and four) but also that the last two years had been “thoroughly miserable”. The former Brown spin doctor lamented: “Opposition is always really, really hard. People who like opposition and skip into the chamber every day, I kind of wonder whether all the lights are on ...  The only point of being in opposition is to try and get into government.” He would trade his seven years in parliament, he told me, for seven days on the backbenches in government.

Born into a working class family in Erdlington, a Doncaster mining village, Dugher hails from Labour’s “old right” - a tradition antithetical to that of Jeremy Corbyn. Like other standard-bearers such as Tom Watson and John Spellar (all former trade union officials), Dugher is pro-Trident, pro-NATO and devoted to the politics of power, rather than protest.

Four months after he became shadow culture secretary under Corbyn (having served as shadow transport secretary under Ed Miliband), Dugher was sacked for “disloyalty”. Corbyn privately cited a New Statesman article in which Dugher argued against a “revenge reshuffle” targeting supporters of Syrian intervention.

Ever since, he has warned that Labour is drifting remorselessly away from power. Though he insisted that electoral defeat was not inevitable (“Politics is wild and unpredictable. Who knows what could happen?”), he added: “You’d have to have a screw loose not to think things are pretty tough. I noticed when Jeremy addressed the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] he didn’t announce the key seats we’d need to take off the Tories to form a Labour government. I thought that was ominous.”

He continued: “It is a remarkable achievement for the leadership to have taken a catastrophic situation in Scotland and made it quite a lot worse. We seem to be doing worse in Wales ... We’ve gone backwards amongst every demographic, every region of the country. Jeremy is behind Theresa May on managing the NHS! It’s quite a special achievement to put all of that together in a short period of time. Hats off to Jeremy and Seumas [Milne], Diane [Abbott] and John [McDonnell]. That’s pretty special.”

Some Corbyn allies privately suggest that the Labour leader could retain office even after a heavy defeat (as Neil Kinnock did in 1987 - though he gained 20 seats). "If Jeremy loses the general election he’s got to go," Dugher said. "The election’s started, I want Labour to do as well as possible but if Labour lost again, particularly if we did worse than last time, it would be ridiculous and an act of profound self-indulgence and vanity to consider staying on in those circumstances.

"I don’t know what his office are so defensive about. They think Jeremy’s going to win. Jeremy’s office should have a bit more faith in him to win the election and then the issue won’t arise."

He added: "The left have always been in the fortunate position of being able to blame the moderates, the centre for when we’ve lost. But whenever we’ve won, they’ve banked it, saying anyone would have won. 'Jeremy Corbyn could have in 1997' - not sure that’s the case, actually. For the first time, they are going to be put to an electoral test themselves: they’ve got the leadership, it’s Jeremy’s shadow cabinet, it will be his manifesto, the public are fairly clear about what Jeremy believes in and the direction of the party, so let’s see how it does electorally.”

Dugher ridiculed the suggestion that party disunity and a hostile media were to blame for Labour's woes. “I recognise that disunity does not help. But the reason why we are so far behind in the polls, it comes down to very simple things: it’s about leadership, leadership is the dominant issue at every general election.

“The idea that Labour might do badly because of Michael Dugher’s tweets, someone who nobody has bloody heard of, rather than Jeremy Corbyn, who is standing to be prime minister, is just for the birds, it’s the politics of excuses.”

Dugher added: “We’ve had a Tory press forever and a day ... They’re a lot less powerful than they were. The Sun will never be able to claim it won anything now, it isn’t like 1992. And yet they [Corbyn supporters] use it as an excuse, it’s just deranged.”

He derided the pro-Corbyn sites The Canary and SKWAWKBOX as "total bollocks" and recalled tweets claiming YouGov was biased towards the Tories. "It’s a member of the British Polling Council! Have these people been smoking something? They should just quit the excuses.

"When I saw a [Momentum] demonstration outside the New Statesman, and you had a beautiful look of bemusement on your face as much as anything, and I just thought 'the left are demonstrating against the New Statesman!' Is the New Statesman now part of the Tory press? What do they want, Pravda?"

But Dugher, who managed Andy Burnham’s 2015 leadership campaign, conceded that it was “no good moderates blaming Corbyn”. Labour members, he said, were “lured to Corbyn out of desperation. What we offered didn’t inspire, it wasn’t radical, it was more of the same. I am as guilty as everyone else.” He insisted that he was not pessimistic about Labour’s future, singling out Rachel Reeves (“the biggest brain in the House of Commons”), Chuka Umunna (“incredibly talented”) and Dan Jarvis (“I knew him when he was in the army and I was at the MoD, a great talent for the future”) for praise.

Dugher is not a man who will struggle to entertain himself outside of Westminster. He delights in sport, cooking (tweeting photos of his homemade curry), karaoke (unlike most, he really can sing) and sharing his Beatles obsession (his office includes an Abbey Road sign and a framed Yellow Submarine cover). “I know but I’m not going to tell you yet,” he said of his future plans.

As Dugher prepared to meet fellow MPs for leaving drinks in Strangers’ Bar, I asked whether he would ever stand again. “I’m a big believer in never say never,” he replied. “I’m very proud of the very small contribution I played in previous Labour governments.

“Unlike Jeremy and Seumas and others, who have no idea about government, who learned about socialism in expensive private schools, my politics was because of where I was from. I was born into the politics of Labour because I grew up in a pit village in the strike ... There was a lot of poverty when I was a child, I have very strong memories of that. That’s made me who I am and that’s why representing that working class constituency, ex-pit villages, I’m really proud of that.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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