Why Zardari wants to be president —Mehreen Zahra-Malik

If it is accepted that Mr Zardari assigns a higher value to not restoring the judges; and if it is also accepted that Mr Sharif will not climb down and let the issue be handled through a broader Constitutional amendment, then one course open to Mr Zardari is to allow the Constitutional anomalies to remain where they are — not only that, but to keep everyone in line, elevate himself as president and use those powers to his advantage

Today, Friday, the Pakistan People’s Party’s Central Executive Committee is going to take the decision to nominate party co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari to contest for the office of the President of Pakistan. What that decision might be is an almost foregone conclusion.

MQM supremo Altaf Hussain has already asked Mr Zardari to present himself for the job and requested the PPP as well as other coalition partners to support Mr Zardari’s nomination. Several PPP leaders have spoken up and talked about it even as Mr Zardari himself, until recently, has rejected that possibility on more than one occasion.

What is going on?

Let’s posit the question slightly differently. Why would anyone, least of all Mr Zardari want to become president if that office were shorn of its current powers; powers, that, to be precise, have been considered inimical to the spirit of parliamentary democracy and which dilute the authority of the prime minister and his cabinet?

Not only that, these powers — chairing the National Security Council, appointing services chiefs, using 58 2 b to send the parliament packing — were injected into the Constitution by a general whose actions have been deemed illegitimate by political actors across the board.

In the past several months, part of the coalition’s struggle against Musharraf has been about curtailing the powers of the president. Indeed, the PPP has announced at several forums that it is determined to cut back the powers of the presidency by pushing proposed constitutional amendments through parliament.

Addressing the National Assembly after Musharraf’s resignation as president, the PPP Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said that Gen Musharraf’s exit was a historic event because it marked parliament’s sovereignty: “Today, parliament has become sovereign. We can hold our head up high in the world and say that we, too, are a democracy.”

Part of this sovereignty is about cutting back the powers of the president. Indeed, about the future, the triumphant Mr Gilani said the government had never accepted the 17th constitutional amendment or Article 58 2 b of the constitution: “There should be a balance of power. We don’t accept institutions which are not accountable to this house [parliament].”

If Mr Zardari now wants to be president, it should be clear that the presidential powers will stay in the Constitution at least in the foreseeable future. Mr Zardari is not interested in the bark; it’s the bite that matters.

So, what has changed?

Much, it would seem. Consider.

The PPP’s coalition partner, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, has shown itself to be completely inflexible on a whole range of issues. General (retd) Pervez Musharraf is gone but the judges’ issue still hangs fire. Mr Sharif thinks that he has effectively coerced Mr Zardari into getting rid of Gen Musharraf and can repeat the performance on the restoration of the judges. This may be a miscalculation if we read the situation in conjunction with Mr Zardari’s intention to become president.

It was easier to get rid of Gen Musharraf; he had become controversial and at some point had to be expended. If one looks at where Mr Zardari’s stakes lay in relation to the two issues that underpinned Mr Sharif’s intransigence, it should be clear that he would have sacrificed Gen Musharraf to get Mr Sharif to fall in line on the judges’ issue.

Ridding Gen Musharraf only required an assurance from the army that the GHQ would not intervene if the general were given a safe exit. Once that became clear, Mr Zardari could own up to Mr Sharif’s cause and get on with the business of putting the squeeze on the general. On that score we know what has happened.

But what about the judges? That is a whole lot different, not just because of the National Reconciliation Ordinance, but also because of the ever-present possibility of the deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan forcing the government to come to a grinding halt. Mr Zardari knows now that Mr Sharif will continue to be relentless.

Mr Sharif wants the judges restored with an executive order before the coalition can get down to amending the Constitution to cleanse it of its anomalies. Mr Zardari wants the judges restored as part of the Constitutional amendment.

This is the point at which realpolitik trumps democratic rhetoric.

Mr Zardari can capitulate and let Mr Sharif emerge from all this drama as the custodian of democracy; or, he can ensure that Mr Sharif makes shipwreck on the rocks of realpolitik.

If it is accepted that Mr Zardari assigns a higher value to not restoring the judges; and if it is also accepted that Mr Sharif will not climb down and let the issue be handled through a broader Constitutional amendment, then one course open to Mr Zardari is to allow the Constitutional anomalies to remain where they are — not only that, but to keep everyone in line, elevate himself as president and use those powers to his advantage.

This goes against the grain of what the PPP has been saying so far but it also underlines the tension built into the coalition. Moreover, if Mr Zardari does go ahead with his plan to become president, it shows how little has really changed despite the democracy rhetoric.

Insiders know that Mr Sharif has demanded that the current Punjab governor be changed and in his stead a leading light of the lawyers’ movement be placed in the Governor’s House. If true, it proves the argument about the simmering nature of relations between the two major parties. The current governor, Salmaan Taseer, addressed a press conference Thursday calling upon Mr Zardari to become the president.

The coalition is thus headed towards a collision. If Mr Sharif doesn’t bite, Mr Zardari will try to outflank him through this move. As president, Mr Zardari will be within his constitutional right (Article 89, Clause 1) to promulgate an ordinance upholding the NRO; as ruling party, the PPP has the numbers to turn any such ordinance into law.

The PPP could also link up with other parties to isolate the PMLN. This could also spell trouble in the Punjab where the PPP might want to upstage the PMLN, though if the PMLQ forward bloc were to join up with the PMLN, that move may prove abortive.

At the minimum, we could see a repeat of Ms Benazir Bhutto’s first tenure when the Centre and the Punjab clashed. If things really hot up, Mr Zardari could use his power to wrap up the system. Whether that would lead to a more stable system is anybody’s guess.

The writer is News Editor, The Friday Times, and a doctoral student in the United States

Source: Daily Times, 22/8/2008

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