By Cyril Almeida
CALL him Mr NRO. Asif Zardari isn’t the only beneficiary of that much-reviled National Reconciliation Ordinance, but he is the most high-profile.
Widower of the woman who negotiated the NRO, regent of the PPP because his son is too young, master of the country because his ruling party is too pusillanimous to challenge him – the president has a long list of enemies who would like to see him taken down a notch or two.
So Zardari’s foes rejoiced when CJ Iftikhar declared Musharraf’s ‘07 emergency unconstitutional because they hope it will re-open the issue of the NRO. What they won’t tell you is that it’s a legal dead end. Politically though it could be Zardari’s kryptonite – but more on that later.
The NRO, promulgated by Musharraf a couple of weeks before Benazir returned to Pakistan in October 2007, is a simple enough ordinance. The text claims it was meant to ‘promote national reconciliation, foster mutual trust and confidence amongst holders of public office and remove the vestiges of political vendetta and victimisation’.
Lofty goals those, but the rule of thumb here is that the loftier the language the baser the motives. Mainly, two laws were affected by the NRO.
One, the Criminal Code of Procedure was amended to withdraw all cases filed by the government between Jan 1, 1986 and Oct 12, 1999 – this on the condition that a review board determine that ‘political reasons’ and ‘victimisation’ were involved.
Two, the National Accountability Ordinance was amended to overturn convictions in cases dealing with events before Musharraf’s coup in 1999 in which the accused were tried in absentia and to bring to a halt ongoing investigations into pre-October 1999 shenanigans of public officials.
The result? The legal woes of many, many politicians were simply wiped away. Including the man destined in the most befuddling of ways to become the next president – Asif Zardari.
But what would it mean for Zardari today, here in August 2009, if the NRO is scrapped? Legally, not much. Article 248 of the constitution gives Zardari presidential immunity – ‘No criminal proceedings whatsoever shall be instituted or continued against the President or a Governor in any court during his term of office.’
A settled issue then? Well, this is Pakistan, so let’s assume it’s not.
How do Zardari’s rivals cut him down to size? Since he controls the federal government, there are unlikely to be any memos being prepared by state prosecutors for criminal proceedings against the boss – at least if the prosecutors know what’s good for their careers.
But couldn’t CJ Iftikhar and his band of non-PCO judges find a way to bring Zardari to justice? The problem is they sit too high up in the judicial pyramid – they preside over, in the main, courts of appeal, not trial courts. And with none of the state prosecutors likely to step forward to do something about their president … unless CJ Iftikhar strikes fear into the hearts of prosecutors with his gavel and his ability to chuck people into jail for contempt. But now we’re in the land of the bizarre.
So then why are people so worked up about the NRO?
Those who want to see Zardari back behind bars will in any case get another chance. The NRO is time bound – it applies to stuff that happened before Oct 12, 1999. If the next non-PPP government, military or civilian, wants to go after Zardari in that time-honoured fashion of persecuting your predecessors, they won’t be bothered by stuff that happened in the last century. They’ll have enough from September 2008 onwards – when Zardari became president – to dig through.
So why create this fuss over the NRO?
Because the NRO is a political stick to beat Zardari with. Think about it. For the last decade and a half BB and AZ have been synonymous with corruption. Not a single piece of news or commentary about the duo could be written or broadcast without a mention of corruption. They were probably sick to death of it, and were maybe even concerned that the allegations would follow them to their graves and that the whispers would haunt their children too.
So what they needed was a clean start; a way to re-enter Pakistani politics not encrusted with the mud of corruption. Enter the NRO. And the reason it drives their detractors mad is that it actually worked – say what you will, but ‘NRO’ doesn’t quite have the same ring as ‘Mr Ten Per Cent’.
The NRO was BB’s ‘get out of jail’ card, a way to campaign on the election trail without the distraction of having to fight corruption allegations in court. And it also ensured that any last-minute hiccups in the delicate negotiations with Musharraf would not see her and her party members shut out of the elections altogether – look no further than the recent travails of the Sharif brothers for evidence of what an unfriendly election commission and judiciary can do.
BB tried to cover all her bases through the NRO – even the scenario where she and her party members were elected, but then continued to be harassed in the assemblies. Which is why there’s all that stuff in the NRO about NAB officials being prevented from seeking the arrest of members of the assemblies without consulting special ethics committees.
The ‘problem’ is that the NRO has worked for Zardari twice over. It allowed him safe passage to parliament (the president is part of it) and therefore gave him immunity. And it’s robbed his opponents of something straightforward and deliciously powerful as Mr Ten Per Cent.
While nothing can be done about the immunity bit now (though the most rabid of Zardari’s foes will still hope there’s a way), breathing new life into the issue of the NRO will bring front and centre all the messy stories again. Stories of country estates and safe-deposit boxes and necklaces and oil-for-food money and multi-million-dollar bank accounts.
Yes, Zardari is constitutionally impregnable. Indeed, the closest thing to him is CJ Iftikhar, who will retire a few months after Zardari either resigns or is re-elected. But, as we’ve seen, in Pakistan, legal certainties are only worth so much. So Zardari’s foes will try whatever else they can to dislodge him or at least make him very uncomfortable in office.
But don’t feel sorry for the president. Politics here is cut-throat and he can fight in the trenches with the best of them. Besides, he’s got a significant advantage over his rivals – he can make his own destiny. Pakistanis are a forgiving lot; corruption is overlooked when the government delivers on some of its promises to the people.
From villain to semi-hero, Zardari is on the threshold. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to be aware of that, or he simply doesn’t care. True to form, Mr NRO is letting the moment pass.