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Pakistan Politics: Beleaguered Presidency left with single option

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Disconnect with Army and other power centres growing

By Kamran Khan

KARACHI: Events that will unfold in the next one month may prove critical for the future of Asif Ali Zardari as the President of Pakistan, according to several knowledgeable politicians, well-placed officials and an important presidential aide.

President Zardari is currently juggling with the option to either accept the position of a ceremonial president with no executive authority whatsoever, a remake of Rafiq Tarrar and Fazal Elahi Chaudhry or face ouster under political pressure.

In return, Zardari is expecting some face-saving on the issue of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) at least in parliament next month, a difficult proposition because the PPP lacks political support on this issue in parliament.

President Zardari’s political problems are compounding rapidly as the key players, such as the Army, the judiciary and political allies who had facilitated Zardari’s ascent to the presidency despite PPP’s lack of majority in parliament last year are now having second thought that borders on repenting their earlier decision to let Zardari combine the powers of the supreme commander of the armed forces, the president and the PPP chief in one office.

Dwindling faith in President Zardari’s capacity to act as a neutral, corruption-free, nationally respected leader of Pakistan waned further early this month when the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), a pro-democracy group financed by the US government, reported in an in-depth survey that only about two in 10 Pakistanis carry any favourable opinion about President Zardari.

As opposed to President Zardari’s terrible approval rating, the same IRI survey revealed that a big majority of Pakistanis, close to nine out of 10, hold the institution of the Pakistan Army in the highest esteem followed by the judiciary that won the support of seven out of 10 Pakistanis.

Immediate concern facing President Zardari, knowledgeable officials and a personal aide said, is not his sinking public image but the growing unease in relations with an increasingly assertive Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Gilani now wants unhindered authority on matters of government that include foreign relations, meaning no role for president in the external and national security affairs of the state. The prime minister, enjoying full confidence of the military leadership and the cabinet, has set on an independent course, often confronting President Zardari’s closest allies like in November last year when he removed the president’s blue-eyed retired civil servant Salman Faruqi from the important post of deputy chairman Planning Commission.

He followed that by sacking Mahmood Ali Durrani, the president’s handpicked national security adviser in January this year, and reinforced his position by neglecting Zardari’s preference for Dr Shoaib Suddle, a professional police official as the head of Intelligence Bureau, who was replaced by Javed Noor, an equally honourable professional police officer in May this year.

Gilani went on to consolidate his image of an independent and assertive prime minister in August this year when he asked President Zardari’s closest friend and important associate Dr Asim Hussain to resign as the prime minister’s adviser on petroleum and natural resources. And early this month, he sacked Latif Khosa, President Zardari’s nominated attorney general of Pakistan, whose case of allegedly accepting Rs 3 million as bribe was referred to him by the Chief Justice of Pakistan.

“The president fully understands that all critical actors of power play in Pakistan, along with almost full spectrum of political parties, are putting their act together to launch a final salvo against him soon,” conceded a personal friend and a close aide to President Zardari.

The same aide and a Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader, who had met President Zardari along with Nawaz Sharif at the largely symbolic banquet meeting at the Presidency on Tuesday, confirmed that during the meeting Nawaz Sharif’s message to Zardari was loud and clear: “Act fast on each and every promise you made with the nation or count your days in the Presidency.” An important PML-N leader insisted that Nawaz Sharif’s last statement before he met Zardari was extremely important in which he had stressed preference for democracy but not for an individual-based politics and leadership.

Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the Presidency on Tuesday, the PML-N sources boasted, dashed any hope that Zardari might retain any powers under Article 17 of the Constitution. But President Zardari’s political predicaments are not confined to the opposition parties, whose leader in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, refused to meet him on Tuesday, the political parties aligned with the PPP at the Centre are also having a second thought on Zardari’s sincerity in dealing with their genuine issues.

Ch Nisar Ali Khan, it is learned, will now lead the PML-N’s efforts to defeat NRO in parliament and he fired the first salvo by protesting over a decision by the speaker National Assembly to change the composition of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law, which is now examining the NRO bill.

The disillusionment of erstwhile and present political allies, particularly the MQM, was most telling when President Zardari met with the MQM chief Altaf Hussain in London last month and later with an important MQM delegation at the Presidency early this month.

“There is limit to receiving vague and broken promises and making complaints. We’re being pushed to the wall,” said an important leader of the MQM, whose leader Altaf Hussain had first proposed Asif Ali Zardari for the President.

The MQM, despite being in the government, took a cautious position on the Kerry-Lugar Bill and is actively debating in favour of not supporting the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) in parliament.

President Zardari, though, loves to project himself as the democratically elected president but his complete disconnect with public and his decision to restrict all presidential activities to the four walls of the Presidency in Islamabad is contributing to his miserable approval ratings, his aide agreed.

President Zardari has not attended any public function outside the Presidency so far this year. His last visit to the NWFP was in February and to Balochistan in March this year. He went to the Punjab for three hours in July to attend a luncheon meeting with Nawaz Sharif at the latter’s Raiwind residence.

“Almost, every night that he had spent outside the Presidency this year was on a foreign soil,” a senior official at the Presidency confirmed. President Zardari’s worsening ties with the military leadership has also contributed to a widespread desire in the country to return Pakistan to a solid parliamentary democracy where the prime minister exercises full powers.

Zardari’s image in the military took another jolt this month when the Presidency publicly disdained popular reaction in the country against some of the controversial clauses of the Kerry-Lugar Bill.

“The GHQ noticed with shock that the Presidency saw no problems with the controversial clauses of the Kerry-Lugar Bill that were declared mistakes even by the United States ambassador in Islamabad,” a senior official source said.

Though the Kerry-Lugar Bill gave an impetus to serious difference of perception between the president and the military leadership on issues of national security, the problems had persisted since Zardari’s ascent to power after the elections.

Zardari, it seemed, triggered the trouble when in May last year, only a few weeks after the change of government, at a briefing arranged for him and the new prime minister at the ISI headquarters, he lectured the military leadership on strategic issues and delivered his action plan to deal with problems concerning India and Afghanistan.

He apparently tried to give a practical shape to that plan when in July last year the Prime Minister’s office issued orders to place the entire administrative, financial and operational control of the ISI under the Ministry of Interior i.e. Rahman Malik. This triggered an immediate response from the Army and the notification was withdrawn within a few hours.

President Zardari’s relations with the military received another blow when the New York Times broke the story in the last week of August about US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad’s secret contacts with Zardari in his bid for Afghan presidency. Khalilzad was on warpath with Pakistan’s establishment during his tenure as the US ambassador to Kabul and revelations of his secret contacts with Zardari was no welcome news for the GHQ.

President Zardari made cardinal mistake when he invited Afghan President Karzai, disliked by the security establishment for allowing India to use Afghanistan as an intelligence outpost against Pakistan, to join him in the maiden press conference Zardari held after taking oath as the president of Pakistan in September last year.

In the same press conference, President Zardari shocked the civil and military leadership alike by making stunning statement of a major breakthrough on Kashmir within a month. Neither the prime minister nor the Army was aware of any such development.

President Zardari’s declaration at an Indian media event that Pakistan backs a policy of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons shocked both Pakistani and Indian establishment as it ran contrary to Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine and represented a major shift in Pakistan’s stated policy.

His interview with the Wall Street Journal in October last year where he described the Kashmiri Mujahideen as terrorists and mocked former president Musharraf for calling them “freedom fighters” added to Zardari’s strained ties with the military leadership.

A month later, in the wake of terrorist attack on Mumbai, President Zardari, without any consultations with national security establishment, instantly agreed to the demand of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to send the ISI chief to New Delhi, a move that was later back-peddled on Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s intervention.

But the real battle for his future in the Presidency would still be fought in parliament where he appears to be losing support, at least for now, notwithstanding strains in his ties with the military establishment.

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