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Pakistan: Zardari Regime Pulled Back From the Brink of Collapse but With Conditions
By Shahid R. Siddiqi. Axis of Logic Exclusive
Axis of Logic
Saturday, Oct 2, 2010

(Revised - 03 October 2010)

President Asif Ali Zardari and COAS General Ashfaq Kayani. 
(Photo by APP)

‘A deal has been reached’ say the insiders in Islamabad. After a week of intense brinkmanship by the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leadership, dramatic developments resulting from Supreme Court proceedings and sensational media coverage, the impending demise of the government was almost a foregone conclusion. The body language of a nervous prime minister – Yousuf Raza Gilani, indicated he was bracing for the change, even through a military coup.

But after a meeting with the army chief on September 27, the president and the prime minister took a sigh of relief. The army chief told them he had no intentions of taking extra-constitutional measures against their government. Pakistan’s political set up had been pulled back from the brink.

Army Allows Government to Remain but Demands Changes

General Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, despite the military’s discontent with the government’s performance, provided it space to move on and save the country from sinking deep into a political chaos.

A statement issued by the president’s office after the meeting said that they had agreed “to protect the democratic process and to resolve all issues in accordance with the constitution.” This affirmation of support was badly needed by the government to show that the military stood by it.

The New York Times reported: “The Pakistani military, angered by the inept handling of the country’s devastating floods and alarmed by a collapse of the economy, is pushing for a shake-up of the elected government, and in the longer term, even the removal of President Asif Ali Zardari and his top lieutenants.” There is no reason to doubt this conclusion.

The general reportedly demanded dismissal of some ministers in the 60-member cabinet, many of whom face corruption charges, a demand that Mr. Zardari has so far resisted. This exchange is being interpreted by the media, which is openly hostile to the president, as a rebuke to his establishment and a warning to put the house in order.

Mr. Zardari, an indirectly elected president (called an ‘accidental president’ by his critics) in the wake of a sympathy wave following the murder of his wife – Benazir Bhutto, is now considered an embarrassment and a liability not only by the nation, but also by his disillusioned mentors in Washington who catapulted him into the presidency. Prime Minister Gilani, a weakling and Mr. Zardari’s hand picked old loyalist, lacks spine and is unable to stand up to him even to protect the interests of the state.

But ‘change’, now a key word in Pakistan’s political circles and the media, has become a public demand and appears to be inevitable. Disillusioned by the rule of disgustingly corrupt and inept politicians who have given nothing but an exorbitantly high cost of living, job losses and insecurity, people from middle and poor classes are openly asking for military to takeover and put an end to this national nightmare.

The military, country’s most powerful institution, took over reigns of the government four times in the past 63 years when self serving politicians brought the country to the brink due to their inability to efficiently administer it and provide sound governance. But military interventions did not help much. Other than temporary relief for the people and Band-Aid solutions for issues of governance, the military rule could not come up with lasting solutions to the nation’s political woes. Neither being trained nor equipped to run a country and having no constituency of its own, the military was always forced to fall back on the support of the same breed of crooks called politicians, who by misguiding it caused the exercises to fail.

General Kayani has so far acted with remarkable restraint in dealing with the government’s gross mismanagement. Although he plays backstage watchdog, he has sensibly kept himself and the military out of the political limelight this time.

Only within two and a half years after General Musharraf’s departure, the politicians have allowed the country to descend into chaos, thanks to their squabbles, cronyism, lack of direction, policy making and pervasive corruption and mismanagement. The resulting irreversible decline has had an adverse bearing on Pakistan’s national security that the military is responsible for, causing it to be angry and righty so.

Despite the desperate need for change a military takeover was neither feasible, nor desirable, nor even on the cards. At a time when the military has too much on its hands – tackling internal militancy and safeguarding strategic interests in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, it could not assume additional responsibility of mending a broken system of governance. Besides, this would create issues of legitimacy if it resorts to extra constitutional measures.

A change through the constitutional process could only occur through midterm elections or creation of a new alliance in the Assembly that would reduce the ruling PPP into a minority party. Ravaged by the floods and the infrastructure in tatters, the country cannot go to polls. Besides, this expensive exercise will produce results no different from what the country is already saddled with - a split mandate and the same old faces.

Nawaz Sharif - a Weak Alternative to the PPP

Nawaz Sharif, former Prime Minister, belongs to the PML-N political party (Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz group). He is also one of Pakistan's richest businessmen with an estimated net worth of $1.4 billion.
The other option is for Mr. Nawaz Sharif, whose party is the next big block in the house, to form a new coalition government by enticing smaller parties that are now with the PPP. He shows no interest in doing that yet. He waits in the sidelines to make his bid for prime minister’s job for the third time (third term is barred under the Constitution) after getting the Constitution amended and after completing his 10-year abstention from politics, which was imposed upon him under an agreement guaranteed by the Saudis in exchange for pardon at the time of his exile. And then he has no appetite to assume charge of a chaotic political and economic situation, with the military breathing down his neck, and which in any case is beyond him to handle. Emptied state coffers are yet another discouraging factor for him.

One cannot also overlook that Mr. Sharif is another discredited politician who has faced corruption charges, whose family is believed to have amassed wealth through dubious means and who brought the country to similar catastrophic state in his earlier two stints with power. A man with no vision and limited understanding of statecraft, inflated ego, hunger for absolute power and with a track record of mistreating an uncooperative judiciary, he is also bound to prove a similar disaster, if not bigger.

Mr. Sharif was ousted in a military coup by General Musharraf in 1999 and exiled to Saudi Arabia, whose rulers he begged for his rescue while in prison. He is neither acceptable to the military nor the Americans because of his ties to religious extremist elements in Punjab who form his support base. Except Punjab, he does not enjoy support in other three out of four of Pakistan’s provinces.

Political Impact of the Floods

The floods have further exposed the incapacity of the entire political set up at the provincial and the federal levels. The nationalist party ruling Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was caught sleeping when the province was hit by the gushing flood waters.

Sharif brothers who rule Punjab were too busy politicking against the Zardari establishment to see the floods coming. After being severely criticized by the flood affected people for apathy in their hour of crisis, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif scrambled to show his concern and now spends millions on television ads showing him tending to the poor to make political capital out of their misery.

Of the Sindh government, lesser said the better. Dominated by Zardari’s cronies and feudals, it sat back and watched them breach canal embankments to save their lands at the cost of the lives and meager holdings of the poor.

Prime Minister Gilani was ridiculed by the media for knowingly visiting fake flood relief camps set up just for media coverage. And while poor affectees were going hungry, newspapers reports talked of scores of cartons laden with luxury goods arriving at his Lahore residence from the London’s Harrods. As for Mr. Zardari, he chose to visit his chateau in France as flood waters were wiping out millions back home. His staff defended him by saying: ‘he could not stop the flood waters, even if he was present’.

The only institution that quietly and efficiently undertook rescue and relief operations was the military. General Kayani’s men went to work immediately even without directions from the federal government.

General Kayani’s Power and Strategic Limitations

Under these circumstances General Kayani had little room to maneuver. His best option was to extract commitments for improvement of the government’s performance without disturbing the existing set up, but keeping the sword of Damocles dangling over its head – the threat of military intervention. He confronted the president and the prime minister over incompetence and corruption in the government during their meeting, while the Supreme Court was hearing the case about non-implementation of its judgments few hundred yards away from the scene of the meeting.

If indications that Mr. Zardari has agreed to changes demanded by the general are correct, certain key figures of his establishment and some hangers-on who evoke public disgust might be shown the door. A close confidant of the president has already fled to avoid judicial scrutiny. Some key ministries and departments are likely to be given to technocrats to begin the herculean task of economic recovery.

If Mr. Zardari and party now drag their feet on reform, they will risk their survival in coming days. Any risk to the country might force the military’s hand.

That the economy is in critical shape, was made clear by Dr. Hafeez Shaikh, the finance minister, who informed political and military leaders in a meeting last month that there would be no funds to pay salaries after two months. The economy was “teetering on the brink” before the floods but was now headed for the “abyss,” warned Dr. Shaikh. He called for drastic measures to rescue the economy, including an end to extravaganza by federal and provincial governments, a plea that seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

The Judiciary and the Zardari Regime

While the military demands overhaul, the Supreme Court, pursuing judicial activism, is keeping the government on a tight leash, questioning and throwing out most of its malafide actions. In the last few days the government’s confrontation with Supreme Court reached its peak mainly because it fiercely defends Mr. Zardari and the cronies who surround him.

Mr. Zardari and his cronies were beneficiaries of National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) - a dubious law enacted by President Musharraf to hold on to power during his last days. This infamous law was promulgated under a deal with the Americans to wipe out corruption cases against Benazir Bhutto and others to enable her to share power with Musharraf. The law was challenged and thrown out last year by the Supreme Court, thereby exposing Mr. Zardari, a host of PPP stalwarts and thousands of others to prosecution in a chain of corruption cases.

By defying Supreme Court orders to reopen corruption and money laundering cases against Mr. Zardari, the government exposes itself to the danger of a collapse, as it could be convicted of contempt of court. On the other hand the PPP leadership is fearful that if it reopens the cases this might lead to stripping of president’s immunity from prosecution by the court, which it insists is guaranteed by the Constitution. This could send the entire Zardari establishment packing and land him and his partners in crime in prison.

Summary and Conclusion

To blunt the pressures he faces from the military and the judiciary, Mr. Zardari has solicited US support by way of seeking statements in support of democracy. But this is in vain. The US support for democracy impresses no one. It is widely known who the US is trying to protect in the name of democracy.

The failures of successive ‘democratic governments’ have given rise to an intense debate in the country whether democracy in its present form and shape suits the temperament and the genius of the people or is there a need to completely revamp the system of governance. People are sick of being exploited by politicians and now want fundamental and meaningful changes in the system. The consensus seems to be emerging that parliamentary system after all does not work in Pakistan.

There is a growing fear that the Zardari establishment is pushing the common man towards anarchy by making his life impossible owing to its failure. The prices of basic food items have almost tripled ever since this government came to power. From 9% in 2008, the inflation is predicted to rise to 25% in the coming months. People are desperate. Unable to keep their body and soul together, they express their frustration through demonstrations, street murders and suicides. Religious extremism is feeding on this frustration.

The government is decidedly not capable of dealing with this chaos. This can snowball into a directionless movement, a revolution of sorts, with disastrous consequences. That will wipe out everything, including the PPP stalwarts who mostly belong to the feudal class, which exploits the very people in whose name the People’s Party was founded by Mr. Zardari’s father-in-law, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

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Axis of Logic Columnist, Shahid R. Siddiqi