Zardari’s balancing act — Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

Zardari’s main task will be to act as a channel between the military and the political government, and coordinate the imperatives of political and popular governance with the professional and corporate interests of the military

The September 6 presidential election was a historic event as it paved the way for a civilian to take the post after a gap of over seven years. General Pervez Musharraf had manoeuvred his re-election in October 2007, securing the presidency till 2012, but the rapidly changing political scenario forced him to quit last month.

The new occupant of the presidency will have to contend with the legacy of its domineering role in governance and political management as articulated by Generals Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. The latter often stepped beyond his constitutional domain to function as the chief executive, undermining the role of the prime minister. Zia commanded the political system even after appointing a prime minister and restoring the constitution in 1985.

The presidential elections were orderly. The three candidates and their respective political parties campaigned with members of the electoral college, comprising the two houses of Parliament and the four provincial assemblies. Asif Ali Zardari had a clear advantage over other candidates as his Pakistan People’s Party has the largest number of legislators at the federal and provincial levels. Another advantage was that the PPP is the ruling party at the Centre and shared power in all provinces. However, this was no obstacle to the other candidates’ campaigns.

Mushahid Hussain of the PMLQ was the only candidate who threw punches at Zardari. The PMLN candidate, former Chief Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, presented his perspective on national issues rather than criticising other candidates. Zardari followed a similar strategy of outlining his political agenda and why he was contesting the elections.

In an article published in the Washington Post, Zardari maintained that the decision to contest the presidential elections was made on the insistence of his party, to cope with the challenges currently faced by Pakistan and to facilitate the transition from ‘dictatorship to democracy’.

Zardari is confronted with a host of domestic and foreign policy challenges that will impact the future direction of Pakistani state and society. Zardari and the PPP are confident that they have the determination and capacity to cope with these challenges. However, this optimism is not fully shared by large sections of informed public opinion that view his elevation to the highest office with scepticism.

Zardari’s close links with the PPP may become an obstacle in adopting a non-partisan role. As co-chairman of the PPP, he exercises disproportionate influence on the prime minister, who is junior to him in the party hierarchy and owes his office to Zardari. Zardari’s position is further strengthened on his ascension to the presidency.

This raises two fundamental questions. First, will he carry on with the co-chairmanship of the PPP, which would be the first case of an active civilian party leader holding the presidency? Second, will he allow the prime minister and his cabinet to grow as an autonomous political entity or will he continue with Musharraf’s tradition of undermining the role of the prime minister and the cabinet?

The PPP’s current profile is so closely linked with Zardari that his dissociation will weaken the party’s top command. Zardari has revamped the leadership by pushing aside some people who enjoyed special status during the Benazir Bhutto days. These sidelined leaders are expected to build pressure on the leadership structure if Zardari quits his party post. It will be an uphill task for the party to select his successor.

When one party controls all key offices, internal accountability mechanisms falter, weakening the capacity of the government to effectively vent political grievances. One wonders if the prime minister, his cabinet and parliament can come out of Zardari’s shadow when he combines the presidency with the party leadership. This also reduces the prospects of change from within the PPP-dominated power structure.

One way to address these concerns is to amend the constitution to reduce the powers of the president that give him a clear edge over the political edifice. Zardari has indicated that he would be prepared to surrender the powers that perturb the political class. If this is done without unnecessary delay, it will help restore confidence in his presidency.

Another way to reduce controversies around the presidency is to build broad-based partnerships with other political parties. It will be important to develop a working relationship with the PMLN, which is stuck with its one-point agenda of the restoration of the judiciary on its terms. If Zardari takes the initiative of talking to the PMLN leadership, they are expected to overcome the trauma of not getting their way on the judges issue. The real test of the partnership is how the PPP deals with the PMLN-led government in the Punjab. The PPP needs to assure the PMLN that its government at the Centre will not destabilise the Punjab government.

There are signs that the two main parties are drifting in opposite directions. This trend is likely to be reinforced as PMLN members from the Punjab voted against Zardari, reducing his vote there. Unless the two sides realise that an open confrontation will be harmful for both the PPP and the PMLN, they will continue to move towards a bitter conflict. If the presidency can help defuse this tension, it would be a great service to democracy and will also show that Zardari can rise above partisan considerations to serve national interests.

Two other factors will influence the future of the presidency. First, the extent to which the president and the government will own the ongoing war on terrorism. They need to provide clear political backup to the Pakistan Army, which is dealing directly with the Taliban and other militants. Such support is needed to boost the morale of the army and paramilitary personnel at the frontlines.

Second is how they will address American concerns that some sections of the Pakistani intelligence community and civilian administration are quietly supporting militancy in the tribal areas. On the other hand, Pakistanis are perturbed by unilateral US military action in the tribal areas. The president needs to work towards removing the gaps in the American and Pakistani approaches towards terrorism.

The most daunting challenge for the president will be to maintain cordial relations with the military top brass. Zardari’s main task will be to act as a channel between the military and the political government, and coordinate the imperatives of political and popular governance with the professional and corporate interests of the military.

This will be the first time that a civilian president will chair the National Command Authority and the National Security Council. The military will closely monitor how the new civilian president functions.

Zardari has to balance pressure from at least five quarters — the political class, his party and the government, provincial interests, the military and the international community. Above all, there is a threat of economic meltdown. These are formidable challenges, and the new president is expected to help the government cope with them.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Source: Daily Times, 7th September, 2008


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