Wednesday, March 18, 2009




    In Pakistan, the apparent resolution of any crisis is never anything more than another intermission in the unending, adrenalin-filled thriller that is that country's politics. Invariably, what follows is more high-tension, nail-biting drama, or if you will, another crisis of even greater magnitude. Therefore anyone who thinks that the last minute decision of the PPP government to restore the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, is the end of the show, has another thought coming. If anything, Pakistan should be bracing itself for a no-holds barred political power struggle, the outcome of which will decide not only the future of President Asif Zardari but also that of the only Pan-Pakistan political party, the PPP.

By eating humble pie on the issue of restoring the deposed judges, President Asif Zardari and his party's government has defused the immediate crisis that threatened to devastate Pakistan's political system. The move has, at least momentarily, disarmed the most vocal opponents of the government. With the prospect of an imminent regime change forced by a raw demonstration of peoples' power in Islamabad receding into the background, Asif Zardari has lived to fight another day, a fight that won't be long in coming. But for now, Pakistan's dangerously rickety political rollercoaster has just slowed down a little to give the riders a brief respite before they go on yet another hair-raising ride.

    There can be no two opinions that Asif Zardari's political standing has been badly damaged in this entire episode, first by his backing out from political agreements made with a lot of fan-fare before the public to restore the deposed judges, and now by his succumbing to the street pressure that was built by the opposition, the media, the lawyers and other sundry civil society activists. It will require all his considerable skills at political manipulation to rehabilitate his public image, which to start with was already tainted by a sustained, unforgiving and often unfair campaign against his personal character and his alleged proclivity to use public office to satisfy his kleptomania.

Clearly, the odds are quite heavily loaded against Asif Zardari. He now will have to contend with an enormously powerful political opponent like Nawaz Sharif who seems to have captured the pulse and imagination of the most all important Punjab province. More seriously, he might also have to fend off a potent challenge that is expected to emerge from within his own party. Rumours are rife in Pakistan that Zardari's hand-picked Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, is trying to break out his mentor's shadow and come into his own. There is talk that Gilani and the Sharif brothers are working in tandem to make Zardari's position very untenable in both the party as well as the presidency.

Helping the Sharifs' in this venture is a media that is rabidly hostile towards Zardari and his close aides. While trying to maintain a facade of objectivity, the media has very consciously rigged the public debate to create a groundswell of opinion against Zardari. Newspaper columnists and anchors of popular political talk shows (some well-known touts of the infamous Pakistani intelligence agencies and others known to be in the pay of the Sharifs') are very brazenly, and one daresay quite falsely, trying to project Yusuf Raza Gilani as a leader of unimpeachable integrity and exceptional qualities who truly deserves to be the inheritor of the political legacy of the Bhuttos.

The Sharifs' are believed to be directly and indirectly pumping air into Mr Gilani to make him rise in revolt against Zardari. By attempting to drive a wedge between the President and the Prime Minister, the Sharifs' are trying to split the PPP. If they are successful, then it is possible that the Sharifs' might prop up Yusuf Raza Gilani for some time before they eventually pull the plug on him and force a mid-term election which they then hope to sweep. In other words, Yusuf Raza Gilani is likely to remain a lame-duck regardless of whether he stick with Mr Zardari or casts his lot with the Sharifs'.

Not only Gilani but also other senior PPP members are also trying to machinate and manipulate against the leadership of Zardari. The lawyer leader Aitzaz Ahsan has used his pivotal role in the Lawyers Movement for restoration of the judiciary to assiduously build his public image as a crusading and principled politician. He has positioned himself as a credible alternative to Zardari in the event that the latter is forced to cede control of the PPP. Other lesser leaders of the party, like Raza Rabbani, Enver Baig, Safdar Abbasi and his wife, Naheed Khan, are also bristling with rage against Zardari either because they sidelined by him after Benazir's assassination, or because they were denied important offices that they thought they deserved. The knives are out for Zardari from some other quarters as well. For instance, the extended Bhutto family as well as the Sindhi nationalist groups hope to regain some political relevance by an erosion in PPP's Sindhi support base.

For the famed military-bureaucratic establishment of Pakistan, the PPP's disintegration will be the final denouement of all the political engineering and intrigues it has engaged in for nearly four decades. Chances are that if Asif Zardari is sidelined or removed from the scene, the PPP will split a dozen ways. Every two bit leader will stake a claim for the party's leadership. Most of the so-called conscientious objectors and dissidents have no political base of their own, much less the charisma or stature that can catapult them into the position of unquestioned leadership of the PPP. Given that many of these people can't even win their home seat, their political prominence is the result of their position as Benazir Bhutto's courtiers. Some of them are also darlings of the media and the chattering classes. Alas, exposure by the media alone is not enough to become a mass leader. If it was, then Imran Khan would have been the undisputed leader of Pakistan today.

And yet, all is still not lost for Asif Zardari. Despite the strong array of forced ranged against him, as a duly elected president, he still controls all the constitutional levers of power. Even if he is compelled by political circumstances to sacrifice many of his presidential powers that are incongruous in a parliamentary democracy, as long as he commands the loyalty of the party machinery and cadre, Zardari will remain a powerful political figure. Like Pervez Musharraf who drew his strength from his command of the army, the real source of Asif Zardari's political strength lies in his control of the party. This in turn depends on the basic political DNA of the PPP jiyala who places blind faith in the Bhutto family, something that Yusuf Raza Gilani and others of his ilk will never be able to mutate in their favour. At best, they can chip away at the party, but hijacking it is probably way beyond their capability.

    Of course, if the efforts to remove Asif Zardari succeed, and as a result the PPP either disintegrates or is reduced to being a spent political force, the biggest sufferer will be Pakistan's federal structure. Separatist Sindhi nationalism, effectively kept at bay by the PPP, will get re-energised, and that too at a time when the Pakistani state is fast losing control over two other provinces – NWFP and Balochistan. In the event, Pakistan's federal structure will fit the description 'Punjab-occupied Pakistan'.


    <1250 Words>                    18th March, 2009



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