Zardari has forced a confused

establishment to decide quickly

 By Shaheen Sehbai
ISLAMABAD: A grave threat perception is fast developing in Islamabad’s key power centres, around Asif Ali Zardari’s attempt to occupy the presidency. The concern is not about his political right to contest the election but about the way he has adopted, the tactics that he is using, the misleading claims, broken promises, petty politicking, unauthorised name dropping and other tactics to achieve his political ambitions.

In the last four days in the capital, I have been interacting with all the key stakeholders in the political charade unleashed by Mr Zardari’s unilateral decision to fast forward the presidential election without taking any of his coalition partners into confidence and then bulldozing every other issue out of his way to grab the most powerful seat in the country.

Of course, he has been encouraged by his relatively easy successes to put his men on the PM’s seat, the Speaker’s chair, in Sindh and all key ministries in the cabinet, besides sidelining important PPP stalwarts and foisting his friends of the ‘exiles club’ on other state institutions.

No one challenges his democratic credentials as head of an elected party but the personal credibility of Mr Zardari has become a serious issue. For instance, I have it from the horse’s mouth that Mr Zardari had misled many of his political allies and partners by claiming that the establishment, which mediated and guaranteed many deals, had expressed serious reservations about the restoration of the judges, specially chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. I have been clearly told there was no such reservation and never any one of any rank had interfered in the matter telling him what to do or not to do.

Likewise, the perception that ‘everyone was onboard’ with Mr Zardari’s decision to become the president was also not true as the subject was not discussed with key stakeholders, political and apolitical, causing irritation and concern among many concerned quarters.

One general view in Islamabad is that Zardari had suddenly put too many things on his plate and it was almost impossible for him to handle them singlehandedly. “This one man show cannot sustain, as one person cannot physically be the party head, de facto PM, de jure president, party strategist, economic czar, wheeler and dealer, manpower manager, political mastermind. This all-in-one approach was detrimental to the country,” a senior analyst said.

The key concern in the security establishment is not why he is doing it but what he is doing. The Army pulled out of all political matters, to a great degree if not altogether, in the hope that politicians would collectively put their heads and wisdom together, reach consensus on critical security, economic and political issues quickly, frame policies accordingly and provide clear guidelines to the Army to implement these policies.

General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani made it clear a number of times that the Army was ready to take orders from the politicians provided they own the policies and share the credit or discredit of success or failure.

But instead of getting all the political parties together to address the very sensitive and highly critical security and economic issues, Mr Zardari’s hit and run style of politics has splintered the political spectrum in a way that a Pandora’s box has reopened, all small time political actors and jokers have overnight become holders of immense political clout and even the balancing power, blackmailing and horse trading rates have skyrocketed and in this mess, the urgent need to address the issues has been ignored.

So fast has this degeneration taken place that the strong and united support, needed by the forces fighting the security and economic wars on several fronts, has vanished leaving these forces completely unnerved, in a state of near panic and vulnerable.

On some of these fronts, like the war against domestic terrorism and the battle to keep foreign interference in FATA and northern areas, including even the Frontier Province, the establishment feels there is absolutely no time to waste and a stage is soon arriving where even our best forces and best efforts would not work.

A functionary ranked high in matters of security, in a candid discussion in Islamabad, came up with a scaring and almost hair-raising scenario: “What if our forces in Swat or FATA refuse to fight any more because of lack of will and political support. Where would that take the country and who will stop the onslaught of the Taliban then.”

Likewise, a top bureaucrat said the situation was getting so quickly out of control that all senior and competent officers were scrambling to get out of Pakistan on any post, be it ambassadorship or representative of Pakistan in world organisations. The business community has already stopped investing and the dollar is moving out in millions to safer parking lots.

The top PPP leadership is paralysed and unable to defend the actions and policies of its leaders in public or the media. The oft-repeated and grossly overused card of Benazir’s ultimate sacrifice is losing its impact so fast people have started asking questions whether her death had gone in vain.

Building from that high point when Zardari declared ‘Pakistan Khappe’ to the world, hours after Benazir’s assassination when Sindh was literally burning, people are now asking whether Benazir died in vain. This is a major climbdown. ‘Pakistan Khappe’ means Pakistan is viable and counters the sentiment in Sindh that they do not want to stay together.

Yet the initial brilliance and resilience shown by Zardari has turned into authoritarianism and arrogance of power, displayed mostly before his party leaders. Another unfolding personality trait experienced by his key coalition partners, and the nation, has been his slippery nature, going back on his word, ignoring his commitments and promises, oral or written, and then publicly justifying that what he was doing was all in the domain of politics and hence permissible.

This wily petty politics is untenable and unacceptable at the level where he has risen. A strong sense of moral uprightness is needed and a man who openly proves that he does not stand by his promises, can hardly make a claim to be the head of the state. Zardari has to quickly correct this image if he is to be taken seriously.

These antics have brought his credibility as a leader with a vision and capability to lead the nation to almost nil. Even a foxy political leader like Maulana Fazlur Rehman has publicly expressed annoyance and repulsion, although everyone knows where Maulana comes from. Suddenly for him the bargaining rates have jumped out of the roof.

The Sharif brothers are awe-struck and unable to digest what is happening so fast around them. They still want the coalition to work, as do all the major stakeholders of the country’s political, economic and security establishment, but Mr Zardari is making hard for everyone to deal with him.

A very credible source told me in Islamabad that when a top US diplomat, sitting with some friends heard the news that Zardari would contest the presidential election, she immediately grabbed her head with both hands and kept shaking it for some time before uttering the words: “Will we now deal with President Zardari.”

In my interactions, I talked to Zardari as well and in my candid way told him that as a very dear friend I wanted him to step back from the decision to contest the presidential election. “Why do you say so,” he asked. “Because you will not be able to handle it, because it will be too much for everyone to swallow and digest so quickly, because if you fail you will bring the entire political system down.”

When told that if becoming the president was so important for him, he could have achieved that goal through a consensus in the coalition and would have become the head of state without causing any of the political turmoil that he has unleashed.

“The price my partners were asking was too much,” he responded. “They were asking for restoration of the judges on Nov 2 position and that would have offended the MQM who would destabilise Sindh,” he said.

The response was unbelievable for me and I did not argue with him. But this is where he has gone so wrong in his thinking. If he did not want to annoy his junior partner in Sindh for fear of instability, whose support by the way he does not need to sustain the Sindh government, how could he throw out a major partner at the Centre, who he needs to keep his government, and which will destabilise the entire country. Is stability in Sindh more important than stability in Pakistan?

But it turned out later that the excuse he gave me was just an excuse as he has been telling Nawaz Sharif that if he restored the judges, the ANP would be annoyed. Being a serious political party, the ANP quickly clarified that they stood firmly for the restoration of the judges and Mr Zardari was not telling the truth.

Still on credibility issue, what a terrible mess Zardari has allowed them to make. He tells the foreign media that Justice Iftikhar was involved in politics. Then he tells Geo TV Justice Iftikhar will be restored soon. His prime minister first promises that all the judges would be restored in a week and when that deadline passes, he says Justice Iftikhar is the ‘Imam’ of all the judges and all of them would be restored. When, he does not say but probably after Mr Zardari becomes the president.

Still on the same day these promises are made by Zardari and PM Gilani, the law minister sings another tune and says all Nov 3 actions were legal, Justice Dogar is the rightful Chief Justice of Pakistan and there cannot be two CJs, meaning Justice Iftikhar will not be restored. Can anyone explain this glaring display of deceit, deception and chicanery. Is this the way the presidency and the prime minister house and the government will be run?

While everyone is asking this question, many in Islamabad and Rawalpindi are wondering who is looking after the key national security interests of Pakistan as time for many crucial decisions is running out faster than anyone can imagine.

Instead of using the immense force of political unity to tackle these issues, like they did to remove Musharraf, a major obstacle in their way, Mr Zardari has chosen the path which cannot solve any of these issues. The moment the coalition was broken, the high point of the political system was reached and now it would be downslide only.

Still Mr Zardari can save the situation if he can think and decide clearly, disproving the planted reports about his mental illness. He must step back from the presidential election, agree on a neutral consensus candidate with the PML-N and other partners, bring the Nawaz group back, as they are prepared to come back, remove the 17th Amendment as he had promised, restore the judges and then quickly move on to govern, as the prime minister if he wants powers, or from behind the scene as he has been doing.

The alternative is unimaginable. By trying to grab the presidency, he has forced all his opponents and enemies to instantly rally together and stop him. The establishment is confused but is quickly discussing whether neutrality to the extent that it damages the country is a better option or whether intervention to stop the situation going totally out of hand is advisable. Mr Zardari, unfortunately, has forced them to make that decision very soon.

Source: The News, 29/8/2008

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