Pakistan may have averted a major political crisis when Asif Ali Zardari, besieged in the presidential palace in Islamabad, agreed to the demand of lawyers and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif to reinstate the deposed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, but it would be premature to state that its troubles are over. The government climb down came after a series of dramatic developments over the weekend of March 14 and 15 the most important of which were the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani’s talks with Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s phone call to Zardari.
Kayani bluntly told Zardari that the army would not shoot at demonstrators and he must sort out the political mess he had created by himself. Clinton’s phone call was equally blunt: no American bakhsheesh would be forthcoming if the crisis continued. This seemed to focus Zardari’s mind on what needed to be done. She also delivered another message that must have shaken Zardari in his chappels: the Americans would work with politicians that have broad support among people. This was a clear hint that opposition leader Nawaz Sharif was the person the Americans had in mind and if Zardari could not deliver, they would turn to Sharif. Clinton’s phone call prompted Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, to protest US “interference” in Pakistan’s domestic affairs. This is disingenuous. The US has meddled in Pakistan’s domestic affairs for decades; Zardari owes his position precisely to such interference. True, the deal was to have Benazir Bhutto in power before she fell to an assassin’s bullet on December 27, 2007 but the fact is that this was facilitated by the US. Haqqani himself was involved in such dealings; that is how he got the plum job of ambassador.
Boxed in from all sides, Zardari was forced to retreat but left the mess to Prime Minister Gilani to clean up. In the early hours of March 16, Gilani went on television to an-nounce that Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry would be reinstated as Chief Justice on March 22 after the current chief justice, Abdul Hamid Dogar’s term ends on March 21. This was a face-saving move since Dogar’s appointment was considered by many to be illegal. He had taken oath under former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf’s Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) that was roundly condemned by most legal experts as unconstitutional. Following Gilani’s an-nouncement, Nawaz Sharif, who was then leading a procession through Gujranwala, said he would call off his protest and the planned sit-in in Islamabad. He returned to his home in Raiwind, outside Lahore.
The current crisis erupted when Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz, who was Chief Minister of the most important province, Punjab, were “barred” from holding public office by a court ruling on February 25. This was widely seen as a political decision, motivated by Zardari to grab power in Punjab. He not only dismissed the Punjab government but also imposed governor’s rule. The governor, Salman Taseer, is a Zardari cronie and while he is supposed to remain neutral in political matters, the fact that he belongs to Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) makes a mockery of this claim. Taseer also has a bad reputation both politically and morally (his second wife is a Sikh woman who lives with her son in India. According to Islamic law a Muslim is only permitted to marry a woman who belongs either to the Christian or Jewish faith). His appointment as governor of Punjab was seen as designed to undermine the legitimately elected government in the province.
Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N-group), had thrown his weight behind the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of the judges, especially Chief Justice Chaudhry who had been “dismissed” first in March 2007 and then in November 2007 by Musharraf in order to save his own skin. Zardari and Sharif had signed three separate agreements to reinstate Chaudhry but Zardari balked, fearing Chaudhry’s independence and the fact that he might declare the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) illegal. Musharraf had issued the NRO granting indemnity to Benazir Bhutto and Zardari from prosecution on corruption charges. Under this deal, brokered by the US, Benazir would have become the prime minister and she in turn would not press charges against Musharraf for suspending the constitution when he declared a state of emergency in November 2007 as the Supreme Court was about to declare Musharraf’s “election” as president illegal. Fate took a different turn when Benazir fell to an assassin’s bullet; Musharraf was forced to resign in August 2008 that landed Zardari in the presidential post.
A street urchin, Zardari owes his rise to power entirely to his slain wife’s family name and political fortunes. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, founder of the PPP, served one military dictator, General Ayub Khan, for eight years, connived with another, General Yahya Khan, to break-up Pakistan and was hanged by a third, General Zia ul-Haq. Once ensconced in the presidential palace, Zardari surrounded himself with cronies marginalizing long-time members of the PPP. This also contributed to his spectacular defeat over the question of the Supreme Court judges because he became politically isolated. Poor advice from cronies — security advisor, Rehman Malik, Punjab governor Salman Taseer and legal advisor Farooq Naik — compounded his woes.
Both Taseer and Malik had told him that if Nawaz Sharif were placed under house arrest in his Raiwind estate to prevent him from joining the caravan heading for Islamabad, the masses would not come out and the march would fizzle out. Highways leading into Islamabad were blocked by huge metal containers that were forcibly taken from truck drivers; they were left stranded in the middle of nowhere. This merely added to popular resentment. The masses came out in large numbers, especially in Lahore, the home base of Sharif brothers, and fought pitched battles with the police. Some police officers refused to obey orders to arrest people, preferring to resign instead. This was a stunning display of the federal government’s lack of authority and reflected the widespread support enjoyed by the Muslim League (N) led by the Sharifs.
The massive public support for the “long march” emboldened Nawaz Sharif to break the siege around his house and join the rally. The stand taken by lawyers and political workers near the General Post Office in Lahore to confront the police emboldened them while it demoralized the police. On March 14, when the government announced under pressure that it would lodge an appeal in the Supreme Court against the February 25 disqualification of the Sharif brothers, many police officials saw this as a signal that Shahbaz Sharif, the ousted Chief Minister ofPunjab, would soon be back in power. They decided it would be best not to antagonize him, thus their decision to disobey federal orders to block his path or that of his older brother Nawaz.
A number of PPP members also resigned over Zardari’s handling of the crisis. Two senators, Raza Rabbani and Anwar Baig, were the first to go, Rabbani being the party’s leader in the senate. This was followed on March 13 by Information Minister Sherry Rehman who was upset over the closure of GEO TV since it was broadcasting anti-government rallies that the regime wanted blocked. Prime Minister Gilani was also unhappy with Zardari’s handling of the situation. He wanted to resolve the crisis through dialogue.
Justice Chaudhry’s reinstatement capped a two-year campaign in which two successive governments were forced on the defensive. The announcement was greeted with jubilation throughout the country and was seen as a first step toward political sanity and a semblance of maturity in Pakistani politics. Zardari rightly fears Chaudhry’s reinstatement because he may accept challenges to the indemnity from prosecution that was granted to him and his slain wife on corruption charges by the military dictator.
Given Chaudhry’s independent streak, the cases might be reopened and that would be the end of Zardari’s rule. Informed observers believe that this is unlikely in the near future and that there is bound to be a cooling off period unless another crisis erupts. Zardari’s arrogance and lack of intelligence might lead him to create more enemies for himself. Perhaps there might be reason to revisit the issue of his mental state, something his US psychiatrists had said in 2006 to secure him relief from court cases in London.
By taking on the Sharif brothers, Zardari essentially put his hand in a hornet’s nest. They dominate Punjab, the most populous and politically significant province. Taseer had assured Zardari that he has the support of another faction of the Muslim League (Q-League) and would be able to wean away a significant number of N-League legislators as well. In the murky politics of Pakistan, such horse-trading is common fare. Politicians have no ideological commitment; they go with the tide and will sell themselves to the highest bidder. Those in power, and hence control of the treasury, are often able to attract opportunists. Taseer’s assumptions cannot be faulted; his political calculations were wrong. First, the Q-League has only 42 seats in the Punjab provincial assembly; with the PPP’s 140 seats, it still falls short of the 196 that Shahbaz Sharif has on his side. So the numbers did not favour Zardari, nor was Taseer able to attract N-Leaguers away from their party.
Most observers see Zardari’s days in power as numbered. His party is falling apart; many long-standing members are unhappy with the manner in which it has been hijacked by Zardari’s cronies. Zardari himself is much despised in the party both because of his rapacious greed and his foul mouth. He has managed to turn many people into enemies for no apparent reason. When the chips are down, few people would stand up for him. There are even fears that he might be killed, simply to get rid of a venal character who happened to land in the president’s job because his wife was murdered. There are also people that suggest that he himself had a hand in Benazir’s murder.
Whether there is any truth to such allegations is one thing; what is certain is that Zardari is not fit to be president. The sooner he is removed from that post, the better it would be for the hapless people of Pakistan. What will come next is an equally vexing question but that is something the people would be able to live with.