September Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

The National Assembly hall reverberated with slogans of ‘Jiye Bhutto’ when Asif Ali Zardari was declared Pakistan’s newly elected president, completing the process of the return to civilian rule, which had started after the landmark February 18 elections. It was a convincing victory, with more than 70% of the electoral college members voting in Zardari’s favour.

The presidential elections marked the completion of a political resurrection for the man who has been thrust onto the centre stage of Pakistani politics only a few months after the assassination of his charismatic wife, Benazir Bhutto. It was an amazing reversal of fortune for the 53-year-old controversial widower, who has spent more than a decade in prison on murder, corruption and other criminal charges.

The best feature of this election is that it was democratic. Even though beset by a lingering reputation of corruption, Zardari reached the pinnacle of power because he and his party were elected by the people. His support came from across the country, particularly from the three smaller provinces where his majority was overwhelming. It certainly indicates a shifting of power from the Punjab to the federating units. The development may help strengthen the federation, which had weakened because of nine years of military rule.

“My election presents a historic opportunity for all political forces to change the future direction of the country,” declared President Zardari after his triumph. “We must rise above party lines to shut the doors on non-democratic forces, once and for all.” Encouraging words, indeed. But can this promise of a new democratic beginning be fulfilled? A lot depends on the new president’s own actions in the coming days.

With his party in power in the centre and three provinces, Zardari has emerged as the country’s most powerful leader, after his illustrious father-in-law, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As president, Zardari assumes much of the same grip on power that Musharraf enjoyed at the height of his military-backed presidency. He will be the supreme commander of the Pakistani armed forces and the custodian of the country’s nuclear programme. With the presidency taking the lead in governance and political management, the system will resemble Musharraf’s presidential rule. The presidency, and not the parliament, will be the centre of power. In his capacity as president, as well as the party chief, Zardari, and not the prime minister, will be calling the shots.

pppjialasZardari’s supporters say the huge influence he will hold in the job provides the best chance of much-needed stability in the volatile nation, which has lurched through several political crises during the past year, and is struggling with sluggish economic growth, as well as a sharp rise in Islamic insurgency.

Zardari contends that his election as president would bring stability to the new democratic dispensation. “Returning Pakistan’s presidency to democratic governance is a huge step in our country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

Zardari declared that the presidency would be subservient to the parliament. “I believe in a balance of power between the president and the parliament,” he maintained. But even some of Zardari’s associates acknowledge that he has no interest now in giving up any of the powers he sought to reduce before he decided he wanted to be president. “He is interested in running the show himself,” says a senior PPP official.

Others disagree with this argument saying that Zardari, as a powerful president, isn’t what the country needs as it seeks a transition from nine years of military rule to a civilian democracy, a process that began with much promise with the parliamentary elections in February.

Most political observers agree that given the problems of Pakistani politics, a president needs to function as an elder statesman and a non-partisan adviser to keep the democratic process on track. But with Zardari in office, it will be difficult for the presidency to play such a role. Because of a lingering reputation of corruption, despite not having been convicted of any wrongdoing, Zardari will find it extremely difficult to change this image. He found himself embroiled in a fresh scandal last month, when Swiss authorities dropped a money laundering case against him on the request of the Pakistan government, leading to the release of $60 million to him. The move raised renewed questions as to how he acquired such wealth. Certainly not a great beginning for the new president.

However, Zardari has proved to be a shrewd and crafty politician. Since taking on the mantle of leadership in December 2007, he led the PPP to victory in the parliamentary elections and worked with former political foes to force Musharraf to resign. He then outmanoeuvered Nawaz Sharif on the issue of the restoration of judges. But can he deliver when it comes to good governance?

Few governments have faced the kind of serious challenges confronting the new administration. “The gravity of the situation has led me, at the insistence of the PPP, to run for president,” he said in his recent op-ed for The Washington Post. And there comes the real test for President Zardari’s dexterity.

He held no official position until his election as the country’s president, but he has been virtually running the government since the February 18 elections. While the prime minister remained a figurehead, everything was micromanaged by Zardari and his unelected cronies. And although Zardari has proved to be extremely adept in political wheeling and dealing, governance is a different ball game altogether. Here, the performance of the government so far does not show much promise. In fact, there seems to be no understanding of the gravity of the situation.

Zardari assumes the top office as Pakistan confronts unprecedented challenges. Economic unrest has waned public confidence in the government. Food and fuel prices have soared, the rupee has weakened sharply against the dollar and investors have fled the country’s stock market. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves have plummeted to about $9 billion, largely due to rising payments for oil imports and a massive flight of capital. Direct foreign investment, which topped almost $7 billion in 2006-2007, has dried up largely because of political uncertainty. Faced with the threat of defaulting on loan repayment, the government will soon have to seek IMF’s help.

The rising American incursions inside Pakistan’s tribal region have made the situation explosive. After a brief respite, suicide bombings have returned with a vengeance. Hundreds of people have fallen victim to the new wave of terrorism. On the day of the presidential elections, terrorists struck in Peshawar, killing more than 35 people in an attack on a police checkpost close to the provincial assembly building. The deadly bomb blast followed two attacks, presumably by the US forces, very close to the Pak-Afghan border. The impunity and sophistication with which the militants are operating indicate their growing influence.

There is, however, scepticism regarding the ability of the government to deal effectively with the issue of militancy. Zardari and the government are yet to formulate a cohesive counter-terrorism policy. Their approach over the past several months has alternated between military action and a policy of appeasement — not a very different stance from General Musharraf’s flawed approach. Senior aides to Zardari agree that the government needs to take ownership of the anti-terror policy that is still being run by the military.

Over the past few weeks, the government has made many compromises to win support from the religious right-wing groups. On the eve of the presidential elections, the government allowed the reconstruction of Jamia Hafsa, the female seminary attached to Lal Masjid that was demolished last year by the military. It has also reopened Jamia Fareedia, which was closed down after the raid on Lal Masjid. The move, driven by political expediency, raises serious questions about Zardari’s commitment to fighting extremism within the country.

There is a rough ride ahead for the new president, who has little experience of governance and has lived under the shadow of his wife. Though the PPP has deep roots among the masses, its top leadership lacks the ment grit needed to take the country out of the deep mire. President Zardari’s success as a leader would depend on how he addresses the challenges of militancy, rising fiscal and monetary imbalances, energy shortages and issues of governance.
There is a strong apprehension that Zardari’s ascension to power could further fuel political instability. Political tension is already mounting as the PML-N and the PPP brace for a battle in the Punjab. There is a clear indication that the PPP will try to capture the government in the Punjab after winning the presidency. This policy of confrontation does not bode well for the nascent democratic process.

Zardari’s initial success in consolidating his grip on the party and his recent victory against Musharraf have given him a misplaced sense of confidence. His unchallenged power, which many believe could turn the new president into a civilian autocrat, is not a good omen for the future of democracy.

The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.