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Musharraf’s successor

A short history of Asif Ali Zardari’s miscalculations...

Written by Ejaz Haider |
November 12, 2009 3:04:55 am

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has boxed himself in and is now trying to get out. So obvious is this that it’s no more news. The big question now is whether he will be able to do a Houdini.

Post-Benazir Bhutto’s death,Zardari got into the driver’s seat and despite scepticism over his past,there was a general sense within the party as also across the political spectrum that the Pakistan People’s Party needed the Bhutto connection. Zardari also pulled in his son and became co-chair of the party to provide just that magic connection.

He also showed himself,initially,to be eager to make amends with other political actors and to effect compromises. He got into agreements with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz,the PPP’s arch-rival,and also other,more parochial political entities.

The beginning,despite reservations,looked promising. But then he began putting a new definition on politics being the art of the possible. He misjudged the national mood on the judges’ restoration; miscalculated the PMLN’s resolve to stick to its avowed policies of getting the judges restored,reviewing and amending the 17th amendment and the powers of the president under it; scrapping the national reconciliation ordinance which had given legal cover to the return to Pakistan of Benazir and Zardari himself.

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The PMLN wanted a tabula rasa and a new script. Zardari wanted to edit,minimally,former General Musharraf’s script and retain most of what would help him become the president. If one is pressed to come up with one major mistake that Zardari has committed,it is this: his decision to elevate himself as president after getting political support of the PMLN to get rid of Musharraf. Every other miscalculation flows from there. Getting to the Presidency meant retaining much of Musharraf’s illegally constituted legal edifice. There are at least two theories about what he embarked on a series of miscalculations.

One is that he focused on the PMLN’s suboptimal choices and ignored what the party’s principle objective was — that is,could it be that the PMLN was behaving seemingly irrationally because it was aiming for something more important. Hence the PMLN’s decision to even sacrifice its government in the Punjab to make the point about the judges’ restoration. Zardari does not appear to have figured out that the PMLN is playing for the long term; prepared to lose out in the short because that is the winner given the popular mood on some of the basic issues of constitutional government.

The other theory is that Zardari did realise he was exposing his flanks but calculated that bringing back the Chief Justice of Pakistan,Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry,would offer a bigger danger to him in view of the CJP’s penchant for judicial activism. If this is accepted,then going into agreements with the PMLN was a bigger mistake. He should have taken a different road and openly. Instead,Zardari,while accepting the League’s legal-moral stand against the Musharraf legacy,nonetheless,tried to continue with it,thinking that the League would either ultimately play ball or lose stamina.

Neither happened. The League kept pressing its demands and let the tempo build to a crescendo. The situation,given other factors — not least internal security — pulled in the army chief who had to arbitrate and Zardari had to do what he had avoided doing until that point,restore the CJP.

That was the cornerstone of the League’s strategy. From then onwards,it has scored one success after another. Nawaz Sharif has been exonerated in what the Supreme Court has determined to be cases against him based on mala fide; the SC has also placed before parliament ordinances that are deemed Musharraf’s legacy. They include the NRO of which Zardari is a beneficiary.

On the NRO too,Zardari first tried to put up resistance,sending it to the parliament’s standing committee on law and justice. The committee approved it with amendments for presenting to parliament. The League announced it would oppose it,with much media hype. Earlier,the NRO had been challenged before the SC. The PPP realised that even if it managed to push it through parliament,the SC would strike it down. It decided to retreat.

It is against this backdrop that Zardari is now talking about relinquishing some presidential powers contained in the 17th amendment. The League would keep pressing until it renders Zardari toothless and gets him to remove from the Sixth Schedule the bar against a third prime ministerial term which currently prevents Sharif from bidding for that office.

That will happen; Zardari has no option but to play ball now to try and get out of the box. Meanwhile,the League has tasted blood. Whether it will relent once it has got Zardari to do what it wants is anybody’s guess. Most observers think it would go for the final kill by raising the street and forcing early elections. If that happens the gloves would have come off and Zardari in trying to get out of one box would find himself in another.

The writer is consulting editor at The Friday Times,Lahore

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