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Zardari – a skilled politician or an amateur? – I

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No one in Pakistani politics has generated quite as much attention as President Asif Ali Zardari. His ‘from spouse to president’ story may not be a landmark achievement in the context of regional political history, yet he remains the most controversial.

The not so silent minority, the educated, including the media as well as civil society, hates him for his past and, perhaps, hates him for his success at present, while the silent majority seemingly tramples the accuracy of all polls delegating Zardari as the most hated figure in the country’s politics today by voting for the PPP in the by-elections.

The jury, however, is still out on our President’s competence in the political arena: is he a skilled political manipulator, who has successfully dealt with all challenges to unseat him? Or does he exhibit tendencies of being an amateur politician hell-bent on Hara Kari, going from one crisis to another, several of his own making, from which he retracts at the last minute to save his government?

That the President has shown considerable skill at manipulating the political system is evident from his much advertised politics of reconciliation which has effectively provided him with critical support in the Centre, thereby making any attempt to unseat him in parliament, read democratically, a challenge. He has been forced, time and again, to pay a heavy price for this reconciliation, ranging from his inability to effectively seal the periodic recurrence of target killings in Karachi, to the rising anger voiced by senior Sindh PPP cadre against some of his decisions that have had negative implications for grassroot PPP supporters, to refusing to support the normal aspirations of his party’s desire to reverse Musharraf’s blatantly politically motivated decision with respect to the number of districts in Hyderabad.

Many however maintain that the MQM’s decision not to support the government on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) issue in the Parliament is proof that if a sufficiently focused attack against the President is mounted in the Parliament or outside it, but backed by the establishment, the MQM may decide to part ways. This must be seen in conjunction with two relevant factors in our country’s politics today.

First and foremost, it is a fair assumption to aver that in the event of a concerted attack in the Parliament against Zardari, his arch rival Nawaz Sharif, would need to play a lead role. However, Nawaz, given his current parliamentary strength, would require support from other parties to make any attempt at impeachment successful. Such support is not doable at present given that not only does the establishment continue to view Nawaz with mistrust (notwithstanding a couple of clandestine meetings between Shahbaz Sharif and the Chief of Army Staff), but Sharif also continues to regard PML (Q) and the MQM with grave misgivings – feelings that are reciprocated.

The ANP leadership, subsequent to the renaming of NWFP as Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, has expressed reservations against Nawaz’s changed position post-18th Amendment. It is debatable whether the ANP would join any coalition that would impeach a president, who may take decisions contrary to its interests in Karachi, but who nonetheless supports the name change, a major component of ANP pre election manifesto.

And second those who argue that the situation may well change in the next elections and the PML (N) emerge as the major national party due to the appallingly poor governance of the Zardari years need to dispassionately consider whether Nawaz, with the second largest representation in the Parliament, can sweep the next polls. Luring Sindh away from the PPP appears at best a pipedream and the reason may partly be the traditional loyalty of the Sindhis for the PPP leadership based on ethnic identification, even if the party chairmanship is at present held by a spouse instead of a blood heir; but almost certainly is also partly due to the continued failure of Nawaz to make any inroads in Sindh. Nawaz has been unable to launch any meaningful campaign in Sindh for the past two years in spite of his repeated promises to do so. During his last visit to Sindh, he was feted by the Sindh government, hardly conducive to presenting himself as an alternate national leader. The consensus is that it may well take more than two Zardari terms and continued economic deprivation to convince the people of Sindh not to vote on the basis of past loyalties, and by that time Bilawal Bhutto would almost certainly be back to play the Bhutto card, as well as a massive rise in literacy rates.

Balochistan remains restive and in spite of repeated requests by the Baloch leadership, urging Nawaz to play a role and launch a long march to fight for their ‘Huqooq’, he has to date paid only lip service to their cause. It is doubtful if he has won any support in that hapless province since February 2008. And there is little to indicate that Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa will not vote the ANP.

However, past precedence shows that there are ways to get rid of President Zardari unconstitutionally. The army in the past has been in the frontline of dismissing democratically elected leaders.

Much has been written on the army’s focus on not only redeeming its image after the disastrous Musharraf years, but also its engagement in the ongoing war, which leaves little room for a foray in politics. Besides, there is general agreement that Kayani is not ambitious politically.

Given these considerations, many argue that Kayani is astute enough to realise that he will not get a more pliant president ever. Periodic attempts at bravado are quickly repressed by President Zardari and his band of merry men as soon as the army leadership bristles. Proof of this contention is evident in the government’s decision to withdraw the notification that brought the ISI under Interior Ministry’s ambit and the serious reservations on some of the clauses of the Kerry-Lugar Bill that were expressed by the corps commanders in a press release, concerns that were promptly dealt with.

And members of the bureaucracy are agreed that the star during the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue was not the civilian leadership, but General Kayani; or in other words even the Americans understand and indeed accept army supremacy in matters of national interest.

Ahmed Mukhtar, the Defence Minister’s recent statement that Kayani has neither requested for an extension nor will he be granted one was seen by many as an attempt by the President to test the waters, or rather to retest the waters – a characteristic that has defined Zardari as the co-chairman of the ruling party.

The Prime Minister termed Mukhtar’s statement inappropriate when the waters retested turned not to be lukewarm but boiling hot; a few days later the corps commanders reportedly issued a statement that the current COAS should be retained till such a time as the war on terror is over. However, given the President’s penchant for confrontation, one would imagine that this salvo is merely one of a series that would continue till either Kayani or Zardari become irrelevant.

(To be continued)

Copyright Business Recorder, 2010

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