A second coming

President Zardari in a meeting with cabinet members

President Zardari in a meeting with cabinet members

In hindsight, it is clear as day, viginti/viginti.

Once the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had won the most number of seats in the 2008 general election, Asif Ali Zardari was going to be the next president of Pakistan. In fact, after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto handed the reigns of the PPP to Zardari, the destiny of the man dubbed the ‘accidental president’ should have been clear.

But 54 months into a five-year term, it is easy to forget that in the summer of 2008, there was little clarity about Zardari’s personal political ambitions. Daily Dawn’s report on the then President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation on August 18, 2008 contained this telling line: “Coalition partners were left to consider who would be the next President, a position which most are in favour of curtailing and limiting.”

The Washington Post’s Islamabad correspondent also reflected on the uncertainty of the time, reporting on August 19, 2008: “Politicians began marathon meetings about possible replacements for Musharraf, with early reports suggesting a woman might be chosen.”
Within days, though, it became obvious that Zardari himself aspired to the highest office in the land, also its second-most powerful office at the time thanks to the powers Musharraf had arrogated to the presidency during his eight years of being in charge. (The most powerful office was, and remains, that of the chief of army staff.)

Sworn in on September 9, 2008, an alternately beaming and sombre Zardari made it clear – as though further clarity was needed on this point – that his would be a presidency hard to decipher or assess. “I accept the presidency of Pakistan in the name of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. I accept this in her name and in the name of all the martyrs of democracy,” President Zardari said at a press conference immediately after his swearing-in ceremony, standing next to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who he kept front and centre throughout the day’s proceedings.

Was Zardari sending some kind of a message by giving Karzai such prominence on his red-letter day? And if so, for whom was the message intended? To the Americans, that he intended to try and reset ties with Afghanistan, away from the army’s India-centric approach? Or to the army leadership, whose dislike and suspicion of Karzai at the time was well known, to send a signal that there was a new boss in town?
It never went explained — and crucially, there was no real follow-up to indicate what exactly President Zardari had in mind. And thus began a presidency that to this day remains largely inscrutable.

In heading off one crisis, Asif Ali Zardari’s chosen path has often, inadvertently perhaps though predictably, laid the grounds for the next crisis. To be sure, surviving five years in such a hostile environment is no small feat. But locked in a cause-and-effect cycle, the master tactician can also come across as a poor strategist.

Genius or survivor?
To his supporters, Zardari is the president who has steered the country through a perilous transition to democracy, taking Pakistan to the verge of an unprecedented civilian-led transition of power — or equally unprecedented back-to-back electoral victories. Along the way he has willingly ceded presidential powers, devolved power to the provinces, injected phenomenal amounts of national revenues into the provinces, attempted to bring tribal areas and Gilgit Baltistan into the national mainstream and presided over an economy that has eked out growth in a difficult international climate.

To his detractors, Zardari has presided over an epically corrupt and incompetent government that has recklessly endangered macroeconomic stability, allowed public sector enterprises to collapse under massive debt and mismanagement, failed to address perhaps the most severe bottleneck in the economy – a power sector in ruin – and done nothing to arrest the overall decline of the state and its ability to protect its population from an array of security threats.

So who is the real Zardari: The canny political operator who has helped strengthen the democratic order enough to at least ensure its continuity beyond his rule or a thoroughly compromised figure who epitomises an era of weak leadership amidst staggering challenges for state and society?

In truth, neither. Zardari has demonstrated no real vision to speak of, does not even appear to aspire to statesmanship, but he does have a finely-tuned instinct for survival. Because no one, perhaps not even Zardari, could have known just how suited he is for the politics of survival; the longevity of the government he has led by virtue of the fact that he is the boss of the PPP has given him an aura of success.

Thought to be destined for quick and ignominious failure when he took office, but then guiding himself and his government to survive six months, then a year, then two years, then three and four, and now nearly five full years, Zardari is latterly cast as a genius — of a gritty kind, just what the democratic project needed at this juncture, or of a scheming kind, who puts self-interest ahead of everything else.

But Zardari is neither a failure who got lucky or a genius who has been held back by circumstances. He is, simply, an arch survivor, and everything he has achieved or failed at is a by-product of that focus on survival — both the gains to democracy and the minuses in leadership, governance and statesmanship.

President Asif Ali Zardari with his main political rival, PMLN chief Nawaz Sharif, in 2008

President Asif Ali Zardari with his main political rival, PMLN chief Nawaz Sharif, in 2008

Injudicious calculations
As president, there are any number of relations with other institutions and individuals that can shed some light on Zardari’s approach towards power, both as a means and as an end: civil-military relations, dealing with fractious coalition partners, handling a powerful opposition led by Nawaz Sharif, addressing the demands of an international power that eased his party’s way back to power. But because it has been played out overwhelmingly in public, the relationship with the superior judiciary led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry is perhaps the easiest locale to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Zardari era.

Tellingly, the original mistake – having to contend with a powerful Chief Justice Chaudhry at all – was a by-product of a failed political strategy elsewhere. A year after the general election of February 2008, Chief Justice Chaudhry’s crusade to get himself restored appeared to be going nowhere. Because of his forceful personality and the role he played in the downfall of Musharraf, the chief justice was still on the national radar, and a national star — but his route back to power appeared blocked. Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar had steered the court out of the Musharraf emergency and the country had moved on, seemingly focused on making the transition to democracy work.

Crucially, Chief Justice Chaudhry had no real allies left in the political class. As WikiLeaks revealed, even Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) was wary of the deposed chief justice and willing to cut a deal with Zardari. “Shahbaz [Sharif] stated that following the restoration, the PMLN was prepared to end the issue and remove Chaudhry once and for all. On the issue of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, Shahbaz claimed that the PMLN was open to negotiation, provided that Chaudhry was symbolically restored,” a US diplomatic cable from March 2009 revealed.

Zardari’s mistake? Trying to grab the Punjab government with the help of Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ) after imposing governor’s rule in the province. It was a classic case of overreach and homework not done: PMLQ had its feet in many camps, the army, the PMLN and the PPP. When the moment of truth arrived – would the bulk of PMLQ’s members in the Punjab Assembly fall in line behind the PPP to become coalition partners in the province? – the Zardari gamble failed. He had pushed the PMLN towards supporting the full restoration of Chief Justice Chaudhry.

Therein lies a fundamental contradiction: If Zardari has been successful in fending off the superior judiciary led by the Chief Justice since March 2009, that success has only been necessitated because of a monumental error at the outset — allowing Justice Chaudhry to return as a powerful figure, instead of trying to cut a deal with the PMLN while it was within the realm of possibility.

Sparring with the judiciary
When confronted by situation X, Zardari’s ability to survive a threatening environment and emerge with his personal position and his government largely intact has imbued him with the image of a master tactician. But look beyond the immediate and, while Zardari does make the most of circumstances, those adverse circumstances are often of his own creation, at least in part.

Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf has survived a conviction for contempt of court in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) case, but at the root of the NRO fiasco was the government’s insistence to long treat the case in the Supreme Court as a political matter to be fought in the court of public opinion, instead of as a legal matter in which legal manoeuvring could buy time at a lower cost. Curiously, just when the government appeared set to reap political dividends from its strategy of politicising the Supreme Court’s dogged pursuit of President Zardari through the NRO and Swiss cases, Zardari pulled the plug on his own political strategy and ordered the letter to Switzerland be dispatched.

After the exposure of Arsalan Iftikhar’s corrupt dealings with a close Zardari ally, Malik Riaz, and the Supreme Court’s adamant pursuit of a second prime minister, the court was losing the public and political battle. Even the most ardent defenders of the court had begun to question whether the letter to Switzerland was worth the price if it meant deep political and institutional instability in the country.

And just when the court’s standing was at its lowest ebb since March 2009, Zardari did an about-face and handed the court a face-saving exit. Gone, in an instant, was the political advantage that for long, during the cringe-inducing period of Babar Awan as law minister, had never looked to materialise.

Prime Minister Ashraf survives — but even that success is laced with fresh uncertainty because of the court’s renewed interest in the rental power scam. Its latest intervention was predictable enough when Ashraf was nominated as prime minister, itself in circumstances where the preferred candidate, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, was ambushed by judicial intervention at the last minute.

So, in heading off one crisis, Zardari’s chosen path has often, inadvertently perhaps, though predictably, laid the ground for the next crisis. To be sure, surviving five years in such a hostile environment is no small feat. But locked in a cause-and-effect cycle, the master tactician can also come across as a poor strategist.

When confronted by situation X, Zardari’s ability to survive a threatening environment and emerge with his personal position and his government largely intact has imbued him with the image of a master tactician. But look beyond the immediate and, while Zardari does make the most of circumstances, those adverse circumstances are often of his own creation, at least in part.

Legacy time
Now, on the verge of completing a five-year term in office and presiding over an unprecedented civilian-led electoral cycle, Zardari stands on the verge of his greatest victory, or his comeuppance. A divided Punjabi establishment – Nawaz Sharif on one side, the army on the other – and an increasingly regionalised electorate suggest the days of a ‘heavy mandate’ have passed. In a crowded electoral field, the margins between victory and defeat are narrower than ever. And astride this new electoral Pakistan stands Zardari — the master tactician using every trick in the book and then some to drag an unwieldy coalition across the finish line first.

In its dealings with the court, the Zardari-led PPP has gained little electoral advantage. The party base may be convinced that a partisan court has unfairly hounded a duly elected government but the burdens of incumbency hang heavy. Can a voter genuinely believe that the PPP’s performance in office could have been better had it not been for its troubles with the superior judiciary?

The question itself may be unfair, though: few governments anywhere in the world are judged on the basis of their relationship with other state institutions come election time. The judiciary is not meant to be an electoral consideration — and unless the court elects to insert itself into the polling or government-formation process via the liberal use of suo motu powers, it is unlikely to be a factor in whether the PPP gets another term from voters or not.

More worrying for Zardari is that few, if anyone, outside his inner circle believe that the PPP can win re-election through the politics of patronage and accumulating electables alone. Just as obviously, however, Zardari and his inner circle continue to exude confidence, believing that what has worked for five years can work for another five.
This much is clear, though: Never before has the PPP attempted to win an election without the inspiration of a charismatic leader and a populist message. If the electorate does deliver Zardari and his PPP a mandate for another five years, it may also finally bring down the curtain on the politics of ideology and hope.


28 thoughts on “A second coming

  1. Zardari’s political strategy was simple i.e. reconciliation. While mocked by all at first it is the major reason for survival of the current government so far. He visited nine-zero when no supporter of PPP was willing to accept it but now no one thinks twice when MQM and PPP leaders sit together. This is where he won and the rest were sore losers due to their lack of willingness to share be it judiciary, opposition or the Army.

    Had judiciary and certain other quarters not created a perpetual state of uncertainty about government, the investor confidence would not have evaporated and economy would have recouped at a faster rate. May I remind the writer that most contentions with Judiciary were one sided attacks launched by the Courts. Latest case in point when after slumbering for months his Lordship Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry coincidentally gave orders to arrest the Prime Minister on same day as there were thousands parked on his front porch protesting against government.

    Today, both his supporters and opposers do disagree on his legacy as you say but neither doubt his political acumen and wisdom in notoriety.

    • Not so sure my dear , his only instinct is ” Personal Survival at any cost ” he himself very loudly told in 2008 , his only two residences in Paksitan , are ” Either Presidency or Prison ” so in order to escape the “notorious walled residency of inmates where he can forge more Freinds of dubious characters ! ” he has to do what ever is beyond imaginations , to be the resident of ” a secured ” Walled fortress of President House , where he is the Master of all hanger on cronies ! “

      • I don’t think national interest was on his ‘to do’ list anyway…how can one tout reconciliation with MQM as ‘political acumen’ and ‘wisdom’, which in reality was an oft-repeated and orchestrated farce which has pushed karachi to its worst ever state. To blame judiciary and certain other quarters for flight of investors again is farthest from truth…Having a nuclear state with rampant lunatics blowing up govt. and armed forces assets, and no energy (power/gas) for industry or the masses alone is enough for flight of both capital and investors. Can’t blame the jialas for trying, but this is the worst of times for PPP in history.

  2. Cyril can sing all his praises but doesn’t make this individual any cleaner. He has a dubious past and even more dubious role in Benazir’s assassination. If I were a PPP supporter, which I thankfully am not, I would be howling as to why the culprits behind her death have not been brought to justice. I am surprised that all people seem to have just taken that as fait accompli and moved on. Even I felt that was unfair despite my disagreements with PPP party in general.

  3. I am not a fan of PPP or the President, but I would say Zardari has been a genius… in a cunning way. He definitely outfoxed his opponents. There is no doubt, corruption was rife and seemingly appears to have reached an all time record during PPP’s tenure, he and his party did well to survive. The fact that Kayani remained pretty much a ringside observer only, helped the situation for PPP. But I would personally never vote for PPP or Nawaz Shariff – given the choice.

  4. i dont think pakistani electorate is that naive to elect pppp for another term of miseries and mistrust. The people are looking for change and they have understanding to use vote as their means to settle the scores with their elected representatives. The message is clear, “Country needs change”

  5. Although there are many words said about Zardari’s “political acumen and public notriety”, he is clearly neither a politician nor a statesman. He is simply a very corrupt man who is surrounded by very corrupt people who want a piece of the cake in the name of saving the democratic process. Hence, in every crisis, zardari has successfully found an ally who has been willing to be bought for a few minstries or an odd deputy prime minister position, consequently allowing him to survive for 5 years. The moral of the story is, you dont have to have brains or political acumen to be a survivor in Pakistani politics, all you need is be corrupt and be in a position to corrupt.

  6. Zardari, and PPP and PMLN had one point agenda from day complete term and PPP would have not been able to do it without PMLN, ANP help. Now I hope transfer of Govt is done peacful I am pretty sure some bad days in this respect. but if it is done, Kiddos to Zardari. After all diamond cut diamond.

  7. Financially he has ruined the country. Five yrs ago foreign loans were 36 billion , now they are 72 billion . This is one example.
    History will remember his five yrs rule as dark age of Pakistan . This period was full of corruption, brown out and black out.
    After such a major failure why PPP thinks they will come back to power. Common man on the street will remember all those failures.shortage of every thing. To name the few electricity , petrol gas to name the few. People will be stupid if they vote again for the same party.

  8. Zardari’s success was that Pml n never tested him or sided with establishment to overthrow his government as according to there agreement first 5 years will be yours and next five will be ours.Pml n did put some pressure on them but when they thought it could become a breaking point the backed of. Pml n provided soft opposition the both parties were coalition in Punjab.

  9. I never had any respect for the man and I still do not. Not withstanding that, the survival instinct of Zardari, the the quid pro quo Punjab versus Center deal of Sharif brothers, the greed or mere helplessness of the other players and the deliberate or by default role of the army, I offer my profound thanks to all of them. In fact I will offer my congratulations for allowing the whole term to be completed. We do not need just one term, we need several of these to be completed. For this the only process which will cause a natural purge and bring about an acceptable and practical percentage of decent politicians in the centre stage. We can never aspire for a puritan Utopian situation for it does not exist anywhere else in the world. The completion of one full term is a giant step for Pakistan. No matter who comes in power. We need a few more steps like this one. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Let us not lose sight of that.

  10. Excellent piece of work. It proves that AAZ knows how run the country, and handle most difficult parties MQM and ANP. Well Zardari Saheb. Advance Mubarak for next four yeara.

  11. I don’t think this country can afford another five years of abuse of power, plunder and lawlessness which PPP or PPPP has come to symbolise. Zardari has the knack of appointing the choicest of corrupt people on important posts be it senior-most ministry or any other job. His associates, the likes of Malik Riaz who has allegedly gifted him the Bilawal House in Lahore is the jewel in the crown of the president. Any other country and he would be forced to quit the office. In short it would be a good riddance for good of PPPP. Zardari has run the country into ground and his party too.

  12. These politicians, judiciary, army generals, ttp and media are all hand in gloves with each others. They have left no opportunity to fool this nation, murder, plunder and rule by hook or by crook. This nation has enemies within. Now they are happy and celebrating their rule on this helpless crowd. Long Live Demon’s cracy.

  13. The best that one can say about Zardari is that he is a survivor… where does that leave the country? So what if hes managed to hang on for five years. He may be as sly as a fox but he’s proven himself to be a disaster as a leader. He is generally despised by a majority of the population except for the dwindling base of die hard PPP supporters, who frankly will support a monkey if its last name is Bhutto.

  14. When America supports you and have soft opposition (due to agreement first 5 years will be yours and next five will be ours) every one can survive but on the other hand zardari did try to cause a a lot harm to his own survival by enforcing governor rule. He would have been genius if would have tried bring strong government based on good governance. Now military establishment and N league are back together , grand alliance will be formed with parties PML F and JUI Fand mullah military alliance party joining PML N.
    Everyone is winner when you are only up against yourself.
    He only damaged PPP image and ideology.
    Now lets see what results the next election will bring, if held ,as its coalition partners are no more coalition in election, only PML Q remain but it will have hardly any candiates.

  15. Saad Shaikh said it, and I agree, that reconciliation has been the greatest successful strategy of President Zardari. I will add here, that Asif Ali Zardari is a statesman, chiselled out of hardships, imprisonment, and above all the great loss of his soul-mate, Shaheed BB. To strengthen and stabilize democracy, in a country such as Pakistan, is the greatest achievement of President Zardari. I know, as a student of history, that this achievement will always be remembered.

  16. Our Prophet AS failed in trading Mecca, but succeeded in agrarian Medina. There he forged a coalition of workers and peasants. Mao and Lenin were to repeat his strategy after Marx failed in Paris for same reasons.

    PPP is the only Party that combines the agrarians and industrialists. That is why it will remain in power until the others learn to do the same.

  17. Zardari since his days in Petaro has not refrained from utilizing his family and connections from gaining advantage (although I have to say that this is not unusual in Pakistan given its very strong association with corruption).
    Look at the more mundane happenings which do not require deep thinking remember the destructive and ravaging floods of a few years ago, Mr. President actually selected that very time for a foreign tour
    His cabinet and associates are the worst breed of corrupt, callous politicians just a few Yusuf Raza Jilani, present PM Raja Ashraf, the scoundrel land dealer Riaz, autocratic and callous civil servants that he has appointed to positions close to him, people like Hina Khar owner of many thousands of acres of orchards in Muzaffargarh, but not paying power charges in the lakhs of rupees for her factories, very recently the disasters in Quetta and Karachi against the shias, and Zardari not saying virtually anything till Kayani spoke to him, and the very next day Zardari told the Sindh police establishment to take retirement.
    Mr. Zardari, a 12 year old can feel and see the atrocities of Abbas Town, only an imbecile would need the Army Chief to tell him that law and order had virtually disappeared from places like Quetta and Karachi

  18. Zardari survived because the American Establishment, i.e. The State Deptt., The White House and the CIA wanted an extremely corrupt and inefficient man in the presidency. So that “puppet” or slave, what have you, can serve the American interests with ease. The Americans spread terrorism, sectarianism, corruption, espionage and have brought Pakistan to the brink. One more such “Democracy” and we’re done. Then it’s bye bye Pakistan. Therefore, the credit goes to the CIA, State Deptt. and our Chief of Army Staff, who served the Americans well, that they made sure that Zardari’s govt. completed it’s term in office.

  19. As Abraham Lincoln said: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”. That’s the situation with Mr 10 to 100 percent. Now his chair is wobbling. He has no future in this country. He will once again fled away like other culprits and bad guys. In his presence, PPP does not need any outer enemy.

  20. Hitching a ride on grand old Bhutto brand name; a third rate crook with scheming instincts, reached the highest rungs of power in collaboration with his loot hungry PPP sharks. In five years, he has sent Pakistan to bronze age; one more election win, there will be no more Pakistan.

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