Friday, August 28, 2009




In Pakistan, people, power-brokers and political analysts normally start writing the political obituary of civilian governments within a few days of their assuming office. Often enough, the whispers in the corridors of power and drawing-rooms of power-brokers in Islamabad begin as nothing more than a conjecture, but soon they acquire a life of their own, and within a few months the conjecture tends to become a reality. The current dispensation has been somewhat fortunate in that whispers of moves being made to oust Asif Zardari from the Aiwan-e-Sadr (President House) are doing the rounds nearly 18 months after the PPP formed the government and around one year after Asif Zardari became President. While there is no imminent danger of the ‘minus-one’ formula being implemented any time soon – it usually takes many months before such formulas fructify – the insidious campaign that has been launched against Mr Zardari suggests that all is not well in Islamabad. To use the words of Pakistani journalist Mohammad Malick, “there are no rumours in Islamabad; there are only premature facts”.

There are probably three major reasons for the whispering campaign against Mr Zardari. The first is that the military establishment wants to keep the government under pressure and prevent it from taking any bold initiative in areas that the army considers to be its sole preserve – USA, India and Kashmir, Afghanistan, War of Terror, nuclear programme. The second is the growing disquiet in the military over the continuing sense of drift on issues of governance. Finally, the distrust and dislike that the Punjabi elite harbour for Mr Zardari is also fuelling the moves against the PPP-led government.

On the face of it, all talk of Mr Zardari’s premature removal from office appears to be quite bizarre. Short of another military coup, there is no easy way of getting rid of Mr Zardari before his Presidential term expires in 2013. But a military coup is not going to be possible, much less acceptable, under the current domestic and international political climate. The Pakistan army has barely started to recover its image that was badly sullied in the eyes of the people of the country during the Musharraf era. At a time when revulsion against the ancien regime of Musharraf remains very high, the army simply cannot afford to be seen to be short-circuiting the political process yet again.

What is more, the Pakistan army has its hands full in combating the Islamist insurgency. The last thing it would want is to take over the responsibility for running an increasingly dysfunctional country. Unlike the past when an army intervention was invariably welcomed by the main political opposition party, this time the army will face rejection from both the people as well as the principal opposition party, something that could easily shatter the fledgling national consensus in favour of the military operations against the ‘bad’ Taliban and have a devastating impact on these operations.

Of course, this does not preclude the possibility of the army and its dirty tricks department pulling the strings from behind the scenes to create a situation in which Mr Zardari’s continuation in office becomes untenable. The manner in which media personnel, many of them either firmly embedded with the intelligence agencies or else closet Taliban/al Qaeda sympathisers, are carrying out a sustained vilification campaign against Mr Zardari, is a clear sign that the powers-that-be are building pressure on the political set-up.

With direct military intervention ruled out for the moment, and Mr Zardari unlikely to use his presidential powers to dismiss his own government, there are two other ways in which Mr Zardari can be fixed – one, politically, and two, judicially. The problem is that political equation favours Mr Zardari. The PPP-led coalition, for the moment at least, has a comfortable majority in the National Assembly. Even if some of the coalition partners were made to withdraw support, and the government was to be reduced to a minority, it would not affect Mr Zardari who is the real target of the ‘minus-one’ formula; instead, it is Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani who will have to go home. Mr Zardari can of course be impeached. But that will require a two-thirds majority, which will be very difficult to attain given the current composition of the National Assembly where even the main opposition party would be chary of supporting any such political move.

This means that the only way Mr Zardari can be forced out is through the instrumentality of the judiciary, which in the flush of its new found empowerment is not only steadily encroaching into the domain of the executive branch of government, but is also imbued with a sense of manifest destiny of being the only institution that can clean the Augean stables of Pakistani national life. It is being widely speculated that the Supreme Court of Pakistan is likely to strike down the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance that allowed Mr Zardari and many others to get all the cases registered against them scrapped. If this happens, all these cases will get reopened, something that will make Mr Zardari’s continuation in office extremely controversial and raise a clamour for his resignation on grounds of his being ineligible to hold the high office of President of Pakistan.

Although as President, Mr Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution, such legal and constitutional technicalities have generally never prevented the courts in Pakistan from ruling against an inconvenient and unpopular incumbent. More than anything else, the halo that has been built around the judiciary has now given the judges the moral authority, legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the Pakistani public to pass judgements that bring the high and mighty of the land crashing down. Anything less will probably taint the judiciary’s image in the public eye. It is of course entirely another matter that Pakistan's sanctimonious judiciary stops well short of “doing justice even if the heavens may fall” when it comes to taking action against the Pakistan army or upholding a ruling that affects a popular politician like Mr Nawaz Sharif.

Getting rid of Mr Zardari is perhaps not such an insurmountable problem for the Pakistani establishment. A more serious issue, however, is handling the post-Zardari phase. If Mr Zardari is replaced by another president and rest of the system continues as before then this will be an ideal situation. But the military establishment can bank upon the possibility of all other things remaining the same. There is in fact a very good chance that in the process of displacing Mr Zardari, Pakistan will face a much bigger political and constitutional mess than the one it faces currently. Fresh elections will almost certainly bring Mr Nawaz Sharif to power, a rather unappetising prospect for the army which is convinced that Nawaz Sharif will go all out to not only prosecute Musharraf on charges of treason, but also castrate the army’s ability to interfere in the politics of the country. On the other hand if elections are not held it could lead to widespread political unrest and pit the army against the people and perhaps also the judiciary. That will leave the army with no choice but to impose some sort of martial law, which in turn will have its own repercussions which the army would like to avoid.

In the final analysis, it is precisely these wider implications of the ‘minus-one’ formula, which if implemented will effectively translate into a ‘minus-all’ formula, that are likely to end up working in favour of Mr Zardari and leaving the army with no alternative but to continue doing business with him for the foreseeable future.


<1267> 28th August, 2009



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