By S.M. Naseem
MR Asif Zardari’s sudden ascension to the presidential office is now being hailed by unexpected quarters, including those who had imagined it to be the precursor to the country’s demise.
It would have undoubtedly been better if Mr Zardari and his supporters, notwithstanding that his election was likely to be a foregone conclusion, had waited for a consensus to emerge around his candidacy by allaying the various doubts and fears that had gained currency.
His continued resistance to restoring the chief justice not only put in jeopardy the coalition he had so painfully put together, but also increased suspicions about his willingness to live with an impartial judiciary, just like Gen Musharraf who twice illegally dismissed the chief justice. An acid test of his claim that he had accepted the proposal to contest the office in order to save the country from political instability would be to bring to a closure the long-simmering issue of the restoration of the judges.
The piecemeal restoration of the Supreme Court and high court judges – save the chief justice – is a tragic saga and does not remove suspicions about his intentions. Moreover, it demoralises all men and women of conscience who were inspired by the courage displayed by the chief justice on March 9, 2007 when he stood up against Gen Musharraf. It would be a pity if the judicial revolt were to be remembered in history as a mere blip on Pakistan’s political screen.
The prolonged process to deal with the judges issue seems to be an attempt to wear out the judiciary and the legal profession and to teach them a lesson that they should never take the road shown by the deposed chief justice.
It is still a mystery as to what led Mr Zardari to change course and jettison Mr Nawaz Sharif and his colleagues who had helped him and his party achieve such political pre-eminence and also facilitated the opening of the doors to the presidency by forcing Musharraf’s resignation. What is even more intriguing is why he made his peace with the MQM, the PPP’s traditional rival, at the expense of the PML-N, which had joined in framing the Charter of Democracy, while the MQM had been excluded from the exercise because of its collaboration with Musharraf.The accommodation he will have to make with the MQM at the expense of his Sindhi constituency will prove much more costly than what he would have had to do to placate Nawaz Sharif. The PPP was far more likely to increase its political base in Punjab by sharing power with the PML-N, than it was likely to gain at the expense of the MQM in Sindh with its impregnable urban base.
The MQM’s decision to vote in favour of Zardari, who though not himself a feudal is hardly middle-class, instead of voting for Justice Siddiqui (who also happens to be a Mohajir) or Mr Mushahid Hussain (whose spouse is also a Mohajir) and who belonged to its former electoral partner, the Q-League, shows that it was based on opportunism.
Political ambition and temptations of office apart, there seem to be other compelling explanations. The judges issue was, however, a red herring. There was no serious danger that Mr Zardari would have been dragged to the courts, since in any event the Sharif brothers were just as vulnerable, with or without the NRO. An amicable and equitable solution of the judges issue would, however, have earned the goodwill and respect of civil society and would have reassured the people that the prevailing lawlessness in society would be reined in to some extent.
Another factor that probably led Mr Zardari to opt for his chosen path was the fact that even though Musharraf no longer rules the roost, the military is not yet reconciled to the supremacy of civilian authority and still insists on a degree of autonomy in its affairs which is incompatible with democratic governance and the exorcising of its latent political ambitions.
In order to re-establish the civilian writ firmly, the presidency had to be empowered at least for the present. In the longer run, however, Mr Zardari will have to work himself out of his present job and reduce the presidency to its titular role.
This will also be his last chance to redeem his besmirched reputation in politics by proving himself equal to the task of saving the country from the severe economic and political crises it is faced with.
But a more likely explanation is pressure from the US, which although having reluctantly agreed to let him resign wanted Musharraf to be spared an inquisition and to remain in Pakistan to ensure that the war on terror strategy to which he committed himself for the long-term remained undisturbed.
Musharraf’s large network in the army and intelligence agencies remains beholden to him for bringing in American military and economic largesse which they have a stake in seeing uninterrupted. Zardari, who is a savvy intermediary, wants to see this largesse funnelled through him as president, who after all is also the supreme commander of the armed forces and chairman of the not-yet-defunct Security Council. He will now be in a better position to oversee the intelligence apparatus which he failed to capture in his earlier attempt to get the ISI under the interior ministry’s control. Whether the Americans will trust him with delivering on the war on terror as much as they did Musharraf remains to be seen. If he fails to deliver, the Americans will be inclined to adopt the policy of shock and awe through land and air attacks in pursuit of Al Qaeda operatives and which have been in evidence lately in the tribal areas.
It is not unlikely that as the US election heats up, the Republican administration may try to intensify these attacks to give an advantage to the McCain-Palin ticket. With the rapidly deteriorating economic situation, the new Zardari administration will be hardly in a position to withstand US pressures and incursions into Pakistani territory while it seeks more money from Washington.
Both his friends and foes must give him the benefit of doubt that he is sincere in taking Pakistan forward on the path of peace, progress and prosperity which his party symbolises. Most of all, it is to be hoped that, as promised, he will not pursue a policy of vendetta against his enemies and will help realise the Bhutto dream of roti, kapra aur makaan which has become ever more distant in the last decade.—Dawn
By S.M. Naseem