Pakistan Politic: Setting new standards

Asif Ezdi

A week after Musharraf’s resignation speech, the people of Pakistan had to endure another heartrending performance, this time by Zardari, the country’s new strongman, as he extended an apology for having broken promises he had made on the restoration of the judges and on putting up a consensus candidate of the coalition partners for the newly vacant post of president. A solemn-looking Zardari, without the Cheshire cat grin that he often sports these days in his public appearances, admitted having “hurt the feelings” of Nawaz Sharif and appealed to him to rejoin the coalition government for the sake of the country and democracy.

Zardari said that he had broken his “political understandings” with Nawaz Sharif to accommodate the wishes of some friends within and outside the country whose help he had taken in the ouster of Musharraf from the presidency. Although Zardari did not say who these friends were, he was clearly hinting that he had somehow been compelled to break his agreement with the PML-N because of understandings given by him to the army (the most powerful of the internal “forces”) and to Washington and other foreign friends (the UK and Saudi Arabia).

If the army was instrumental in getting a deal for Musharraf, as has been alleged in some media reports, that would be bad enough, because it implies interference by the military in the legal process, which is none of its business. But Zardari was not talking about bringing Musharraf to justice. He was explaining why he had reneged on his commitments on the restoration of the judges and on putting up a non-partisan candidate for the post of president. The suggestion was that the army was obstructing the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

Zardari lamented that he could not tell the whole truth to the nation. The question he must answer is, why not. After all, he was talking about delay in restoring the Chief Justice to his post, not about the country’s nuclear secrets. Zardari is delaying the restoration of the judiciary for his own reasons but is trying to deflect the blame upon the army. This is highly mischievous. The army must not allow Zardari’s insinuation that it obstructed the Chief Justice’s restoration to stand. Otherwise, it will be seen as having become a tool of Zardari in the political games he is playing, rather than being a national institution which is above politics.

Zardari’s declaration now that while taking decisions he keeps in view the “sensitivities” of the establishment (i.e., the army) is another attempt to drag the army into his political battles. It is reminiscent of Musharraf’s talk last year of a troika consisting of the president, the prime minister and the army chief jointly ruling the country and is probably an attempt to curry favour with the military in the run-up to the presidential election. Zardari evidently intends to include the army in his future wheeling and dealing.

If we close our eyes for a moment to Zardari’s person–to the long-standing corruption charges that earned him the sobriquet of “Mr Ten Percent” and to more recent reports that he has been suffering from severe psychiatric disorders–the question must be raised how well he is suited to repairing the havoc wreaked by Musharraf upon the institutions of state. Can Zardari be trusted to restore parliamentary democracy and the supremacy of the Constitution? Will his elevation to the presidency help in establishing the rule of law? Will he tolerate an independent judiciary? Does he understand how important it is to have an army that stays above politics and a professional civil service that is protected against political meddling? Will he be prepared to countenance the existence of a credible system of accountability? Going by his record of the six months since the parliamentary elections, the answers, on all these points, are not reassuring.

Zardari owes his position today at the commanding heights of Pakistan’s political landscape principally to the NRO. Without this piece of legal skulduggery, through which Musharraf once hoped to ensure himself another spell of power, Zardari would still be living in exile as a fugitive from law. Keeping the NRO is a matter of life and death for him. It is therefore understandable that he is not prepared to take any chance on an independent judiciary that could invalidate the Ordinance.

There is also another reason why Zardari cannot afford to sacrifice the Dogar court. Without the judgment given by it in April invalidating the “graduation condition” introduced by Musharraf in 2002 for election as a member of the National Assembly –and therefore also as President–Zardari would today be ineligible to stand for this office. This judgment, which was given in record time after Zardari showed interest in contesting a bye-election to the National Assembly, overruled an earlier verdict by the Supreme Court in which this condition was upheld. It is therefore quite conceivable that if the case were to be taken up by an independent court, Zardari would be held to be unqualified.

Not only is Zardari hell-bent on protecting the Dogar court, he would also like to give constitutional protection to action taken under NRO so that his acquittals under the Ordinance may not be challenged in future before an independent court. That was one of the main purposes of the constitutional package proposed by Naek, who continues to act as Zardari’s defence attorney first and law minister next. Since that attempt misfired, Naek has now declared that the actions taken by Musharraf on Nov 3 cannot be undone. One of those actions was to place the NRO beyond judicial review and to make it a permanent piece of legislation.

Like Zardari’s somersaults on the issue of restoration of judges, he has also taken a U-turn on his candidature for the presidency. Only ten days before his nomination, he was denying any such ambition. He told the ARY TV channel on Aug 17, “I would have become the prime minister if I wished to become president.”

It does not take a genius to figure out that Zardari will soon make a volte-face on his promise to annul the 17th Amendment. After all, he is not seeking the president’s job to become another Rafiq Tarar.

Like Musharraf, Zardari has been trying to win US backing for his political ambitions by promising Washington greater cooperation in the war against terrorism and lenient treatment for Musharraf, the Americans’ former indispensable ally. This is hardly surprising if one recalls that in the US-sponsored negotiations on a power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Benazir, each of them was vying with the other in trying to convince Washington that they would do a better job in meeting American expectations.

Zardari’s railing against the “viciousness” of the media is understandable. The foreign media, in particular, has not been very complimentary. To take one random example, the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau wrote last week that even if only half of the charges against him were true, he would easily qualify for the main role in a mafia film.

The British daily Independent wrote on Aug 26 that even by the notoriously low standards of South Asian politics, Zardari is a compromised figure, dogged by corruption charges. So it was hard, the newspaper said, to be enthused by his candidature for president.

But given what another British paper has called the atmosphere of competitive sycophancy in the PPP–and the short-term political calculations of other parties like the ANP and the JUI-F–it is more or less a foregone conclusion that on Sept 6 our Parliament and Provincial Assemblies will elect as the next president the man who is viewed by most Pakistanis as a byword for corruption and who habitually breaks his word. By doing so, our legislators will be setting new, even lower, standards of probity for our political class. Or should we say higher standards of sleaze?

Zardari’s election will also be a spectacular display of the widening gap which separates the country’s predatory and self-seeking politicians from the people. The burden of realising the hopes for political stability and economic progress that were kindled by the election this February will have to be borne more than ever by the civil society.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service. Email:


Source: The News September 02, 2008

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