|Pakistan: Asif Ali Zardari is the long-awaited fully constitutional and democratically elected President.|
President Zardari at a press conference in Islamabad on September 9
EVEN the sight of jiyalas – that untranslatable Urdu word used only to describe committed workers of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – clambering over the gates of the once unapproachable Aiwan-e-Sadr, the palatial presidential residence in Islamabad, to greet its new occupant could not dispel the air of unreality hanging over the words “President Asif Ali Zardari”. Nor could the shouts of “Je-aay Bhutto” (Long live Bhutto) that rang out inside the hall as the 53-year-old husband of the slain PPP leader Benazir Bhutto was sworn in as the President of Pakistan.
But there is no doubt about it. Zardari, who less than a year ago was as far from the presidency as anyone could imagine, is the new President, and a fully constitutional and democratically elected one at that. The media could have screamed all they liked about “Mr 10 per cent”, a nickname he earned for his alleged corruption from the time he was Minister in Benazir’s Cabinet, and his New York psychiatrist’s submission to a London court that his patient suffered from a range of mental illnesses. But Zardari was voted in by an electoral college comprising legislators of the National Assembly and the Senate and the four Provincial Assemblies in which the PPP and its allies hold the majority votes, the result of the February 18 elections. Fair and square.
Zardari is also the most powerful civilian President in Pakistan’s history, armed as he is with near-absolute constitutional provisions, an unintended gift of the preceding Musharraf presidency. He chairs the powerful National Security Council; he appoints the three service chiefs including the Army chief; and he has the powers to dissolve government, although the last may be unnecessary as he presides over a government led by his own party.
The question that now preoccupies Pakistan and the international community is whether President Zardari can steer the country out of the mess in which it currently finds itself, and which is as much dangerous to itself as to the rest of the world.
In the run-up to the elections, Zardari showed himself to be an exceptional navigator through Pakistan’s choppy political waters. Despite dire predictions that his leadership would cause an implosion of the PPP, he has rendered the party stronger than it ever was. Skulduggery notwithstanding, he adroitly outmanoeuvred the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader, Nawaz Sharif, at his own game.
Sharif wanted Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary and others of the higher judiciary, who were dismissed by Musharraf, restored. Not only would he have reaped political credit for their reinstatement, the judges would have reopened cases against Musharraf’s eligibility for the presidency; they may also have pronounced favourably on a pending appeal against Sharif’s disqualification from contesting elections. Given the PML(N)’s popularity for taking a “principled position” on the judges issue, this was the Sharif road to power, as Zardari saw it.
So Zardari diverted Sharif with the appealing proposition that they both should join hands to get rid of Musharraf, and the restoration of the judges would follow. Lulled by this promise, Sharif threw his weight behind the move to impeach Musharraf. But in the hours after Musharraf was forced into announcing his resignation, it was clear that the judges were not going to be reinstated, at least not in the manner Sharif wanted.
Instead Zardari, taking due credit for getting rid of Musharraf without any blood on the carpet, was ascending to the presidency. Now having reached the pinnacle of power, he is faced with the unenviable task of running a country that has teetered on the edge of being dysfunctional for some time now. Many are the challenges ahead and diverse are the expectations from the new President.
The principal challenge is, of course, the “war on terror” and the impact it has on the United States-Pakistan relations as well as on the problematic civil-military relations within the country. Pakistan has a lead role in eliminating the sources of global terrorism but is badly divided over how it should play this role. Some prominent actors even question if Pakistan has a role, maintaining that this is not “our war”.
This, even as the Taliban sets up enclaves of parallel governance in the tribal areas and makes inroads into other parts of the country. Even the Pakistan government now says what it never said before – that the Taliban in Pakistan is an “extension” of Al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Islamabad is under pressure from an increasingly impatient U.S. to destroy the Taliban freeholds in the tribal areas. The U.S. has made it quite clear that it will take unilateral military action to destroy these safe havens if Pakistan does not do so. The first half of September saw five unilateral operations, including one unprecedented ground incursion by U.S. troops, in the tribal belt. The others were missile strikes carried out most likely by unmanned U.S. planes.
Coinciding as these strikes did with U.S. President George W. Bush’s statement that Pakistan was one of the main battlegrounds in the war against terror, and the belligerent statements by the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Mike Mullen, the country fears it is about to be drawn into a war that could prove as destructive as that in Iraq.
On his very first day in office, Zardari sent out a loud and clear message that the war on terror was his number one priority. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who Pakistan loves to hate, was the only foreign leader invited to Zardari’s swearing-in ceremony, and later the two leaders addressed a joint press conference.
But Zardari’s facetious and flippant one-liners to most questions left many wondering if he was equal to the task that is now before him. There was a sense of disappointment both among those who want Pakistan to “do more” and among those who believe Pakistan has done enough.
The diplomatic community voiced doubts if his style of breezy leadership would deliver on the war on terror, while the country – or more specifically, the belligerent Pakistani media – castigated him for not coming out strongly enough against the Americans for their unilateral strikes. They lashed out at him for sharing the podium with an “American puppet” on his big day as also Pakistan’s as it marked the transition to a full democracy. But by comparison, even the much-reviled Karzai seemed to take a tough line on the civilian casualties as a result of operations by the international forces on both sides of the border.
The complexity of Pakistan’s role in the war on terror was to come out a day later, when the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, made an unprecedented statement reiterating the country’s sovereignty and asking the U.S. to keep out. The Army chief’s remarks showed up the simmering tensions in U.S.-Pakistan relations as distrust grows in Washington over the Pakistan military’s suspected divided loyalties towards America, its patron, and the Taliban, its old client. It also set off the speculation that the military was rushing in to fill the perceived leadership vacuum.
In a reflection of the delicate power balance in Islamabad, the democratic government quickly rallied around the Army chief’s statement to dispel the impression that there were any differences between the civilian leadership and the military.
Later, Gen. Kayani, too, came out with what appeared to be a clarification, stating that “all elements of the national power under the new democratic leadership will safeguard the territorial integrity of Pakistan with full support and backing of the people of Pakistan”.
For the moment at least, it appears that the Army has no intention of intervening in the responsibilities of the civilian government. Analysts believe that the situation is so messy that the Army would not want to take upon itself the task of running the country at this point, especially if it means antagonising a vast majority of the people.
Both within Pakistan and in the international community, the immediate hope is that Zardari may at the very least restore political stability, which in turn will enable other steps, including those needed to tackle the Taliban. It means the PPP and the PML(N) must live and let live.
The PPP has to let the PML(N)-led government in Punjab survive, and Nawaz Sharif’s party must play a constructive role in the opposition without destabilising the federal government. But this could get increasingly difficult if the PPP keeps up its attempts to engineer the downfall of the Shahbaz Sharif government, through its Governor in Punjab, Salman Taseer.
The PML(N) does not have a majority of its own in Punjab and, at the moment, needs the PPP’s support. It also has supporters in the PML(Quaid-e-Azam). Despite assurances from Zardari that he respects the mandate won by the PML(N) in Punjab, Taseer has ruffled the Sharif feathers considerably by his meetings with the PML(Q) leadership, hinting at the PPP’s hopes of government formation in Punjab with the help of the Musharraf ally.
The PML(N) is also concerned about the concentration of powers in Zardari’s hands and wants him to take the lead in reverting to the 1973 Constitution, which envisages the President as no more than a figurehead.
Flagging the concerns about Zardari’s leadership abilities at this critical juncture for Pakistan, I.A. Rehman, a respected political commentator who is associated with the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said in an article in Dawn that Zardari “will be required to guard against himself”.
“Clever tacticians do offer their audience exciting fare but they rarely have long lives in politics. They become unpredictable and each time they win by a surprise move public trust in them is eroded,” Rehman said. He also pleaded that the new President be given some time to prove himself.