Kiran Omar


On 9th September Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the deceased leader of the PPP, Benazir Bhutto, was sworn in as the 12th President of Pakistan. The PPP won the February election together with their chief political rivals the PML-(N).


Initially the PPP and PML-N shared power as a coalition government. However since February, cracks began to appear and finally the leader of the PML-N, Mr. Nawaz Sharif has withdrawn from the coalition, relinquishing his party’s share of the posts in the Federal Cabinet. Mr. Sharif has opted to sit in the opposition benches of the National Assembly because the PPP has failed to fulfill its various agreements that formed the basis of this unity.


So back to Mr. Zardari, and the oaths and promises he made on that eventful day. What can the nation and the international community make of the 12th President of this beleaguered country?  The 53 year-old widower’s main claim to fame is his connection to Ms. Bhutto and the years he spent in jail for corruption and murder allegations. His late wife’s two brief tenures as Prime Minister, were overshadowed by Mr.Zardari’s alleged insatiable penchant for demanding and accepting grafts and favours. It earned him the nickname “Mr. 10%” as that was said to be the proportion of graft that was acceptable for every major project he presented for his approval. Nothing was ever substantially proven and the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), a shameful blot on Pakistan’s history, promulgated by the now former president, Mr. Musharraf, guaranteed him and other politicians and public officials, immunity and blanket pardon. All cases of corruption charges, pending in the various courts, were dropped. An international court case against Mr.Zardari and his late wife, that was pending before the Swiss courts for alleged money laundering, was also withdrawn by the government of Pakistan courtesy of the NRO.


Mr. Zardari and Ms. Bhutto (and their other self-exiled party members) were given a clean slate to begin their return to Pakistani politics. But what of his “politics”? Little is known about him personally, and even less so about his politics. Up until the time, fate linked his fortunes by marriage to Ms. Bhutto, he was shrouded in obscurity. Basically hailing from not too prosperous business/landowning family ofSindh, neither Mr. Zardari nor his family had any prior local or national political links or standing, which in Pakistan is considered a disadvantage, given its dynastic and clannish politics.


Mr. Zardari does not have a track record of service or political experience, other than being the spouse of a former Prime Minister. He does not bring to his office any professional or educational strength, and lacks in both political and administrative qualifications and experience. The counter argument would then be…WHO in Pakistan’s brief political history HAS brought to office, these qualities? Pakistani politics have been mostly dominated by leadership with links either to the military or the landed elite. Administrative talents and qualities and political acumen, have never been the criteria for election or selection to office. The new president DOES have a talent for deal-making and political expediency. He has so far proved to be a canny and astute judge of the shifting winds of public opinion and managed to position the PPP to take maximum advantage of the brutal and untimely assassination of Ms. Bhutto. The PPP, riding on a wave of public sympathy for a slain popular leader, transferred its allegiance to her widower who vowed to use “democracy as the best form of revenge”.


The new President has declared that he will be subservient to the decisions of Parliament and has gone as far as to offer to open debate and deliberation on measures to trim the powers presently vested in his office. However, he has yet to relinquish the co-chairmanship of his party, now that he has been elected President through a Parliamentary vote. It would be proper to resign from his stewardship of the PPP as the President is supposed to represent the Republic of Pakistan and all people of various persuasions and ideologies within. It is unseemly that he still wears the mantle of leadership of a political party. As of now, there is no indication of any such plans in the near future. Interestingly enough, the President who claims to be ready to relinquish his many powers, is presently representing Pakistan in the UN General Assembly, and not the head of the government, the Prime Minister.


Over the days since his election, which incidental was not unanimous as he won by a narrow margin, a lack of unity on policy issues, has emerged, between the Presidency and the Prime Minister’s offices. Statements of the PM have often been either at odds, or have been outright contradicted by those stemming from the Presidency. Given the fragile state of security and the economy in the country, it is a matter of urgency that the two main heads of the government be united in addressing these issues in a decisive manner. The analogy being made in certain sections of the press, is that of a rudderless ship, tossed in the waves. 


There remains the issue of the secret and private contacts that were made between Mr.Zardari and Mr. Zalmay Khalidzad, the US ambassador to the UN Security Council. It became public knowledge that Mr. Khalidzad had been advising Mr. Zardari on the mechanics of hastening the departure of Pervaiz Musharraf. It was viewed as highly inappropriate by the Bush Administration and a flurry of angry messages flowed. The question of this manner of covert contact has many puzzled in Pakistan and has put serious dents in the credibility and independence of the President. There were numerous such contacts amongst Zardari/Bhutto, Mr. Zalmay and Ms. Condoleeza Rice, that continued up to the enactment of the NRO.


The fragmenting of the Coalition and Mr. Sharif distancing his party from the PPP is also being viewed by many as a major setback for the democratic process that was going forward. The main point of contention remains Mr.Zardari’s reluctance in restoring the judiciary to its original status which includes the restoration of the Chief Justice Inftikhar Chaudhry . Without the proper restoration of the judiciary and the justice system assuming supremacy in the country, the whole process of democratisation is in serious jeopardy. However, for reasons unbeknown, most of the deposed judges that held out for so long and were hailed for showing their mettle have since then accepted the PPP offer and taken fresh oaths, in effect accepted the Nov. 3 actions of Mr Musharraf against which they had revolted then.


On the very serious and critical issue of growing insurgency and militancy both external and internal, Mr. Zardari has failed to come out with any clear and definitive stand. His statements to date are either ambiguous or appear to side-step the issue. Since the February elections and after his investiture, cases of insurgency have sharply escalated. The Bush administration is exerting tremendous pressure on the government to do more to stem the tide. However public opinion within Pakistan is not in favour of whole-hearted support as it sees the government bowing to this pressure and engaging in a war that is not Pakistan’s to fight. So far the government has not decisively taken any measures to take into account public writ, and has not outlined a clear policy to combat and contain insurgency and militancy.


On the economic front there is also a lack of leadership in addressing the immediate problems faced by country. After being in power for over 6 months, the government is still engaging in a blame-game, piling the woes of the faltering economy at doorstep of the Musharraf government. To restore public confidence, the government must be seen to be actively and effectively, putting in place, relief measures both short and long-term to boost an economy that teeters on collapse. Mr.Zardari has yet to make his thoughts and plans about economic recovery, public. 


It may be early days into the job, but for a country so beleaguered with so many problems, the necessity of the hour is to call upon Mr. PresidentZardari , to please step up and bat for Pakistan. He may yet go down in history as the one who reversed the fortunes and re-wrote history by setting the country on to a truly democratic and prosperous path. The evidence of which, is nevertheless, so far, missing.


(Kiran Omar is an independent political observer, and can be reached at: kiran.omar@gmail.com)

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