The accidental presidency-By Cyril Almeida

COMING soon to a television near you: President Zardari. You could almost hear the gasps and cries and shrieks across the country when Raza Rabbani made the announcement.

From playboy to first husband to public enemy to regent to president — Asif’s journey confounds even those who thought they had seen it all.

The friends of the friend of friends were certainly whooping in delight. And why not? This was the moment they dared not dream of: Zardari as king of Pakistan. The friends of Pakistan, meanwhile, were shaking their heads in disbelief. Eight months ago, Asif was in political purgatory and the marital doghouse and the only largesse he had to dole out were expensive meals in Manhattan. Fast forward to Defence Day and Asif will be crowned king. Many will be wondering who will defend Pakistan from Asif and co.

For Asif-haters, President Zardari will be the final flourish in the case against the man they believe has orchestrated every bitter, bloody step to the top. Over in whatever they are calling the Army House these days, Musharraf must have enjoyed a quiet chuckle. And the chuckle would have only grown louder as Asif and Nawaz went their separate ways. Told them they’d be begging me to come back, he must be thinking.

But what does it all mean, President Zardari presiding over a coalition sans Nawaz? For one, it’s goodbye to the judges’ restoration — via a constitutional amendment or any other device. If the judges want their robes and gavels back, they will have to obediently get in line and take a fresh oath. Asif has refused to budge from his constitutional amendment route to restoration. But Naek’s weighty package also cuts the presidency down to size. Asif may be many things, but he isn’t a masochist — he will never preside over his own political emasculation. So amending the constitution is off, destined to die a death by committee.

That does leave Asif the option of the Nawaz formula of bringing back CJ Iftikhar & co via a parliamentary resolution. But why should he? It will only give Nawaz a famous victory, which is hardly the parting present Asif will have in mind. And it will bring back CJ Iftikhar, who is straining at the leash, desperate to resume his crusade to fix Pakistan and become the people’s hero. Forget the NRO and Musharraf’s indemnity, Asif would be mad to have CJ Iftikhar stomping around his fragile kingdom. So there will be no more CJ Iftikhar — who will become a cautionary tale of the perils of the self-appointed messiah.

Politics, meanwhile, will return to the tumult and trauma of bazaar bargaining. It will become more and more difficult to separate the villains from the heroes. Was this Asif’s plan all along? No. He really did want the N-league back in the cabinet, if only to cop some of the abuse that will be hurled at his government. Steering a transition to democracy requires dealing with dark forces, which will force unpopular choices. If the electoral battles for the forseeable future will be between the N-league and the PPP, what better way for Asif to ensure his rivals don’t get an undue advantage than by tarring them with the brush of collective responsibility?

But Nawaz has proved that his is an oppositional mindset. Politics of principles suits those in opposition; principled is nothing more than a proxy for inflexible, which isn’t conducive to getting anything done in a fractious polity. And first Musharraf, then the judges — if Nawaz got his way, he would see no reason to stop making demands. So a recalcitrant — principled — Nawaz made it inevitable for Asif to move on.

In fact, if a divorce was inevitable, then this is the most amicable way to go about it. A principled, wounded Nawaz will return to his Punjab fort; a pragmatic, powerful Asif will be the puppet master in Islamabad. Which is another reason for Asif to preside over an unamended constitution — the jiyala governor in Punjab will keep a watchful eye on the N-league government, Article 112(2)(b), the provincial equivalent of 58(2)(b), at his disposal.

And those wringing their hands, worrying about nurturing a democratic system? This is the system. A durable democratic system will only emerge from the tumult of politics. And when politicians back down. The era of post-politics — reconciliation and working together — was a stopgap, a break from politics to engineer a transition to democracy. If it worked, well and good. But it was always unnatural politics — emphasising responsible governance at the expense of responsible opposition.

At one level, the failure of democracy in Pakistan is simple to understand: it isn’t a failure to get the politicians to agree, but a failure to prevent them from fighting bitterly when they don’t agree. The system — democracy — will benefit if Asif and Nawaz figure out how to fight but not cripple each other. Throwing rocks at each other from their respective camps is fine, as long as neither storms the other’s ramparts.

There is a possibility of this working. As the principled figure in opposition, Nawaz will wrest some compromises from Asif. He has to, for the fewer levers of power Asif has his hands on the more comfortable it will be in opposition.

And it is certaintly a more natural arrangement: the largest national party leading a coalition of like-minded liberal parties; the second largest national party sitting in opposition. Nawaz and Asif as adversaries should not automatically fill us with dread for they occupy very different parts of the political spectrum. What should fill us with dread is the possibility that they will refuse to draw certain red lines.

For now Nawaz is less of a worry. His politics of no compromise is clear but he’s on the wrong side of the powers that be and needs to consolidate Fortress Punjab. The real X factor is Asif. Can anyone honestly claim they know what the man stands for? Away from party positions and the rhetoric he peddles, who is Asif the politician? Is he a tactician or strategician? When he surveys the Pakistani political landscape does he see opportunities or threats? Is consolidation of power the means or the end? And perhaps most importantly, and intangibly, does Asif accept the main caveat of democracy — that democracy will necessarily leave everyone in the system, including himself, a little unhappy? On the answers to these questions hinges the future. Stay tuned to that television near you.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Source: Daily Dawn, 27/8/2008

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