August 29, 2008
The man soon to be Pakistan’s president suffers from psychiatric disorders, including dementia, reveals The Financial Times, based on Asif Ali Zardari’s medical reports, and Nawaz Sharif will agree wholeheartedly. Despair is the feeling that defines the public mood in Pakistan over the past few days. The prospect of Zardari occupying the presidency haunts the people. Given his reputation for corruption and wheeling-dealing, what will he not do for personal gains if he becomes the most powerful man in the country, they ask.
After Monday’s parting of ways between Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, the people have also discovered what the former thinks of political undertakings and agreements signed with coalition partners. There are no divine decrees that cannot be transgressed against, says Zardari. Then, facing a media uproar the next day, he has the gall to play the humiliated victim over national TV, apologising to Sharif for broken promises, and inviting him back into the fold. Is this the man who will be the next president of a country that now stands so deeply divided, with the three smaller provinces endorsing Zardari’s candidacy, as if ganging up on their big, bad brother, Sharif’s Punjab?
Zardari is by no means a controversial person in Punjab alone. Another coalition partner, the Frontier-based Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who is known for his ambivalent rhetoric, called a party meeting to decide whether the rightist Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam would support Zardari’s candidacy and, if so, under what terms and conditions. Those sent to the PPP pertain to calling off military action against Islamists in NWFP, which Zardari has vowed will continue after the government banned the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
The Maulana will prove a tougher nut to crack than the relatively straightforward Sharif; dealing with him, shrewd Zardari may well be on the way of getting the taste of his own medicine: doublespeak, that is. The Maulana may extend a guarded support to Zardari after extracting concessions to halt the military action against the Taliban, even if temporarily. This will allow the militants the much needed breathing space and the time to regroup later, while the Maulana, enjoying a near monopoly over the sale of diesel in the Frontier and Balochistan since the allotment of quotas to him by the last Benazir government in the ’90s, sets his eyes on more lucrative deals after Zardari becomes president.
Pakistan’s presidency comes with practically all powers concentrated in the hands of the head of the state, thanks to Musharraf’s tinkering with the constitution. However, the lesson that even the general could not survive waves of public discontent, however, will be lost on the man set to step into the presidency. To say that Zardari’s People’s Party and Sharif’s Muslim League (together with other coalition parties) alone brought Musharraf to his heels is not the whole truth; the movement waged by civil society for the restoration of the judges sent packing by Musharraf last November was also a significant factor in the dictator’s ouster, because it resonated with large and influential sections of the public. The country had not seen the kind of political activism civil society’s movement for the rule of law generated since Benazir Bhutto’s first homecoming to challenge Zia in 1986.
Together with restoring the supreme and high court judges retired by Musharraf, Zardari’s People’s Party had also pledged, with Sharif, to purge the constitution of Musharraf’s amendments which empowered the president to send a government packing. But with Zardari or his sister, Faryal Talpur — who is running as a covering candidate in case Zardari is barred from contesting for some reason — likely to become president, the PPP is now also playing down its originally-stated intent to purge the office of many of its powers. That is why Sharif’s Muslim League has hit back by nominating its own candidate for presidency, pitching the former chief justice of Pakistan, Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, against Zardari. The judge in 2000 had refused to stamp his approval on Musharraf’s military takeover, opting for early retirement.
If Sharif is able to get the support of the erstwhile King’s Party, the Muslim League-Q, to save his government in Punjab after the PPP leaves it, then the race for the presidency may take a new turn. The vote in parliament will be through secret ballot, and if enough MPs could be persuaded to vote according to their conscience, Zardari may well be in trouble. But politicians in Pakistan as elsewhere seldom show conscience, toeing the party line instead. The Zardari-loyalist governor of Punjab has warned Sharif against horse trading. Buying of MP’s votes is hardly an unknown phenomenon in South Asia. All this while Pakistan reels under the worst bout of instability in many years. Challenges abound: the rupee is low, as are stocks; Pakistan’s version of the Taliban strikes everywhere; insurgencies and sectarian violence abound. There’s little semblance of order, much less of effective governance.
These are formidable challenges for a shaky coalition whose second-largest party has already left it. Zardari may be a smooth operator but his journey to the presidency will be anything but smooth. Despite assurances of support from the other three provinces, Sharif’s Punjab can be the bull in a china shop that is the ruling coalition.
The writer is an editor with ‘Dawn’, based in Karachi.
Source: The Indian Express, New Delhi