Sep 132008

All civilian parties must take advantage of the rare opportunity they enjoy, i.e. the army is squarely on the back foot in terms of popular perception and is led by an officer who seems amenable to being a bystander

Asif Ali Zardari’s elevation to the Presidency has created much controversy. As is usual for Pakistan’s political discourse, the debate has been highly polarised. There are those who refuse to move away from his past and thus see a Zardari Presidency as unfortunate. Others, however, contend that none of his corruption charges were ever proven, that he is a shrewd politician, and that his move is entirely constitutional.

I had persistently maintained that Asif Zardari should not become President.

His controversial past is a major problem, one that cannot simply be erased from the memory of the nation. To argue that Mr Zardari’s guilt was never proven is fruitless. Indeed, a number of charges framed against him were political.

Yet, there is simply too much that went on and too many people who had firsthand experience of the Pakistan People’s Party governments to dismiss all allegations. It is a fact that even Mr Zardari’s closest aides acknowledge in their private moments that not all charges are (or shall we say, were) baseless.

But we do not even need to go that far. What matters in politics, more than facts, are perceptions. Even if one were to assume that Mr Zardari is completely clean, people do not perceive him to be such. His choice as president then runs smack in the face of his stated efforts — which are to be commended — of forming and retaining a grand, consociational coalition.

If the media are the yardstick to go by, an overwhelming majority was not comfortable with Mr Zardari’s nomination. That by itself should have settled it.

Enough said on that.

As of September 6, 2008, Mr Zardari is the President. My argument above thus ought to be shelved in Pakistan’s interest.

Whether one likes it or not, the PPP co-chairperson has taken office constitutionally. And thus, the spirit of democracy demands that we accept the choice. No longer should Mr Zardari be judged as an individual; he now holds the office of the President and must be measured in that capacity.

Mr Zardari is in an interesting situation. On the one hand, his controversial past implies that people’s patience towards him will run out much sooner than otherwise. Moreover, he enters office having reinforced his lack of credibility since February 18 by dishonouring agreements with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, contradicting himself on multiple occasions, and antagonising the median voter on the issue of the judges. In essence, he is already short on political lives.

The flipside, however, is that he enjoys the tremendous advantage of having extremely low expectations attached to his role. The standards set for him are so meagre that he could cause a rethink among the masses with the slightest of efforts.

For instance, simply by getting rid of the 17th Amendment in its entirety during the first month in office would raise his stock immensely and put the PMLN on the defensive.

For the nation, the task is now to accept him as President in letter and spirit and judge him not relative to his past but solely based on his actions beginning September 6 (as one would for any other individual in office). If he does perform well he should be lauded without prejudice based on his past.

Obvious benchmarks for good performance would include curtailing President’s powers; not making any attempt to derail the PMLN government in Punjab; greater efficiency in government functioning now that Mr Zardari can run the show from Islamabad rather than Dubai; and removal of the periodic contradictions in the government’s stance on the War on Terror, among others.

The work is equally cut out for the opposition. If they are really looking out for national interest, they need to move away from targeting Mr Zardari. Challenges should be thrown up regarding issues and policies, not individuals.

Finally, there should certainly be no thought given to the possibility of knocking on GHQ’s doors irrespective of how the situation unravels. All civilian parties must take advantage of the rare opportunity they enjoy, i.e. the army is squarely on the back foot in terms of popular perception and is led by an officer who seems amenable to being a bystander.

The answer to whether Pakistan has moved away from the cyclical transition patterns will for once be determined by the performance of the political leadership.

The writer is a research fellow at the Strategic and Economic Policy Research (Pvt Ltd.) in Islamabad and a regular contributor to The Friday Times. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 13/9/2008

 Posted by at 11:17 am

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