China Matters looks at what delayed the formation of Pakistan’s new ruling coalition for almost a full month.
It’s not Musharraf, or the United States...though they’ve been doing their best.
They key factor has been the ambition of PPP co-chairman (and widow of Benazir Bhutto) Asif Zardari.
Zardari has been scheming feverishly to assert control over a PPP hierarchy that despises him so he can claim the prime minister post—and the independent reserves of power and influence that office will provide him.
Zardari's evolving power struggle with PPP elder Amin Makhmood Famin appear to have played a significant role in dictating the terms and timing of the PPP's March 9 joint announcement with Nawaz Sharif's PML-N.
China Matters sees trouble ahead for any political force that Zardari feels can eclipse him—such as the lawyers’ leader Aitzaz Ahsan or the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif.
China Matters also sees problems for Pakistan, as Zardari’s personal weakness and opportunism encourage foreign manipulation of Pakistan’s fragile and threatened democracy.
There is one thing that should never be underestimated in Pakistani politics.
The opportunism, mendacity, and hamfistedness of Bhutto widower and PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari.
OK, that’s three things.
Three things that Pakistan's enemies, allies, and interested parties from Islamabad to Washington, Beijing, Riyadh, and New Delhi will all be keen to observe and exploit as Zardari extends his control over the PPP.
Here’s Time Magazine reporting on the historic coalition pact between Zardari’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N:
Zardari agreed that the new parliament would pass a resolution within 30 days of convening to reinstate dozens of judges fired by Musharraf after he declared emergency rule on Nov. 3.
The leaders agreed that the judiciary would be restored "as it was on Nov. 2," suggesting that ousted Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry would return to his post.
But Zardari muddied the issue by saying that the current justices would not be "disturbed."
"I think we'll have to take a...stance on this whereby we have a collective wisdom and accommodate everybody," Zardari said.
Zardari’s main problem is that he is profoundly uncharismatic man trying to exercise charismatic control over a mature, energized party that craves competent, democratic leadership instead.
Given the opportunity to rally the troops during a speech to the newly-elected PPP Members of the National Assembly, Zardari managed to avoid every issue of importance—such as the question of who was going to be prime minister—for a cringe-inducing session of Who’s Your Daddy?
The session included the public belittling of a party stalwart who had once neglected to give the PPP’s current jefe his proper due.
Bring on the Chair of Shame!
Zardari’s entire speech, the participant said, revolved around him and how he felt alone in the prison when none of the PPP colleagues came to visit him in the prison.
At one stage, the PPP chief called Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar from the back row and asked him to be seated in the front. A chair was brought especially for him.
Zardari narrated a minor incident which took place in one of the trial courts during hearing. He said he had asked Mukhtar whether he has come to see him but Mukhtar replied that he was here to meet his leader Benazir Bhutto.
When a few years later Mukhtar was jailed, Zardari asked him who is his leader now. “You,” he replied.
The participants were surprised to hear this and several other small stories, which Zardari told them.
A senior party leader told this correspondent that Mukhtar was one of the most vocal opponents of Zardari when he was the PPP secretary-general. He openly criticised Zardari for bringing down the PPP government in 1996 due to his shenanigans.
It is quite probable that this touching scene was choreographed by Zardari and Mukhtar in advance to symbolize that the proud and disdainful PPP hierarchy was being brought to the heel of Zardari, once despised as a corrupt and feckless interloper.
The Western press has extensively reported that Zardari finally endorsed PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif’s demand that the pre-November 3 judiciary be restored.
This is bad news for Musharraf.
He had deposed Pakistan’s Supreme Court because he suspected that they were poised to disallow his re-election as president (Musharraf defied the constitution by standing while still in uniform).
The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has been under house arrest since November. Musharraf went the extra mile by denouncing Chaudhry as the “scum of the earth”.
If the pre-November 3 Supreme Court goes back to work, there’s no reason to believe they’ll be interested in bending their interpretation of the constitution for Musharraf’s sake.
Musharraf is currently huddling with his advisors and deciding exactly how to convince the United States that an ex-military officer with popularity under 20% who has fomented a political and constitutional crisis is the only person to lead Pakistan’s democratic society and professional military--even when the ruling coalition is prepared to openly move against him and the armed forces appear to be safely in the capable hands of Army Chief of Staff Kiyani.
When one looks at the numbers—and the disposition of political forces inside Pakistan—it’s hard to understand why it took Zardari a month to figure out he should back the judges.
The Terror Free Tomorrow foundation did a poll just before the elections. It called the vote within the margin of error. So its numbers are pretty good.
Here’s what it said about Chaudhry vs. Musharraf.
Musharraf’s favorable rating: 30%; unfavorable 62%.
Chaudhry’s favorable: 61% unfavorable 20%
At the time of the poll, 70% of respondents wanted Musharraf to resign.
24% said they would vote for a party led by Iftikhar Chaudhry. Even though he was a) under house arrest b) had no party c) had never stated any intention of starting a party.
To hammer the point home:
Musharraf is extremely unpopular.
His continued efforts to cling to power are the leading cause of political instability inside Pakistan.
The pre-November 3 judiciary is widely respected.
Restoring the judiciary and allowing it to rule on Musharraf’s presidency is the clearest and most logical way to a) get rid of a profoundly unpopular politician b) return Pakistan to constitutional and civilian government c) create a civilian political regime with broad popular support.
The only reason that this supremely logical and popular move hasn’t occurred already is because of Asif Zardari.
Zardari, in his own way, epitomizes the rot at the heart of the PPP just as Musharraf symbolizes the rot at the heart of the Pakistani government.
Both of them distort the political process in order to preserve their positions and advance their interests.
Difference is, of course, Musharraf may very well be on his way out.
Zardari, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere—except, quite possibly, the prime minister's office or even the presidential palace.
Formation of the ruling coalition in the National Assembly has been held up for several weeks because of Zardari’s maneuvering.
On the one hand Nawaz Sharif refused to bring his PML-N into the coalition unless Zardari agreed to call for restoration of the judiciary.
Conceding this point to Sharif was virtually inevitable. Sharif wasn’t going to back down—restoration of the judiciary, in addition to being wildly popular, is at the core of the PML-N platform and its new, progressive political identity.
If the PPP entered the government with Musharraf and the new hack judiciary with the PML-N on the outside of the tent pissing in, the PPP wouldn’t just be unpopular. It would be in a weak government vulnerable to dissolution of parliament and a new election--and at the mercy of the PML-N at the next poll.
On the other hand, there was the United States, which had engineered Benazir Bhutto’s return so that the PPP would cohabit with Musharraf and provide a popular foundation for his presidency. The U.S. was adamantly opposed to a coalition with the PML-N on Sharif’s terms, since restoration of the judiciary would clearly lead to Musharraf’s downfall.
Zardari spend a month anxiously vacillating between the priorities of his patron and the demands of his powerful coalition partner.
The media reported that Zardari was lukewarm on the issue of the judges because he had just used the post-November 3 judiciary to get his corruption cases thrown out and didn’t want to risk a return to legal jeopardy.
Even Zardari did not hide his emotions against the judges...He explained to journalists that he was against the restoration of those judges as these very people were sitting in courts when he, along with his spouse, was being hounded and wronged in jail and put on trial....
Zardari was told that it was not an ordinary show of bravery, defiance and commitment shown by these 60 honourable judges, who had preferred to get themselves jobless and go to jails instead of falling in line as Musharraf wanted them.
But Zardari was not convinced with the logic as he had only one thing on his mind: why was he not given justice by these judges? Sources said similar concerns of the PPP were conveyed to the PML-N...
The Nawaz camp is said to have developed a strong belief that if ministers and civil servants were not doing their duty, then courts should have the legal right to intervene and provide justice to the downtrodden people... But, sources said, this logic and reasoning had little impact on the mind of Zardari.
These remarks provide a window on Zardari’s reflexive sense of victimhood, entitlement, and hurt pride—and his solipsistic conflation of the party and himself--honed during the years when his corruption and poor judgment were blamed for the collapse of the PPP’s fortunes.
But as a policy position, I don’t buy it. I think Zardari was looking for excuses to justify his vacillation on the issue of the judges and avoid antagonizing the United States. (I think Zardari's hostility to the judges also reflects his jealousy of the lawyers' movement as an independent font of power and legitimacy, and reveals his willingness and intent to move against it if and when it appears vulnerable--CH 3/11/08)
Finally, he jumped to Sharif’s side, with an apologetic wink (hey, we’ll accommodate everybody!) to the United States.
Doubtless the precipitating factor was the unremitting militancy of the lawyer’s movement. The lawyers promised a Black Flag week of marches and confrontation to commemorate the anniversary of Musharraf’s first move against the judiciary.
The lawyers’ movement is led by Aitzaz Ahsan, head of the Supreme Court Bar Association, who is also one of the most renowned and respected members of the PPP.
Zardari recognized that the PPP’s political future was grim if he got on the wrong side of Nawaz Sharif, Aitzaz Ahsan, and the lawyers’ movement.
And his personal political future would be bleak as well.
Because Zardari has managed to antagonize many of the cadres inside the PPP during his protracted and divisive effort to assert control over the party after the election.
After the triumph in the February elections, the consensus choice of the PPP elders for prime minister was Benzair Bhutto’s second-in-command, the respected Amin Makhood Fahim.
Zardari promptly muddied the waters by initiating a whispering campaign against Fahim, encouraging some of his cronies to throw their hat in the ring, moving to stack the PPP’s Central Executive Committee (which might have been responsible for the choice under normal party rules), and then threatening to end-around the CEC by choosing the PM in consultation with the newly elective National Assembly members instead.
Zardari’s clumsy attempts to orchestrate the selection of the prime minister brought his leadership—bestowed by Benazir Bhutto’s will instead of a party democratic process—into question:
From The News:
ISLAMABAD: Delay in naming the prime minister by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is sickening for a predominant majority of its MNAs-elect and testing their patience level."We were never in such a state of indecisiveness, in such a spin," one of them remarked to The News.
"I don't know what fear Zardari has in his mind in declaring Amin Fahim as the PPP nominee when the Makhdoom's loyalty to the party has been undoubted. He should come out of his hangover of being inferior to Amin Fahim spiritually in Sindh," said one of them.
Zardari’s stated motives rang alarm bells.
Zardari let it be known that he wanted a PPP man from Punjab to hold the prime minister’s job—despite the fact that the PPP’s base and much of its leadership, including Fahim, is in Sindh.
Of course, one reason for the Punjab qualification might simply be to disqualify Fahim.
But one report speculated that Zardari wanted to be prime minister (first he needs to win Benazir Bhutto’s empty seat in a soon-to-be-held by-election) and that he made the calculation that creating a conflict between four competitors would make it possible for him to leapfrog over Fahim and the others in three months’ time.
Zardari had told the Sindhi MNAs for the first time since the race for the slot of the prime minister started that in the first three months, he had decided to bring a prime minister from the Punjab....
Zardari said he understood that the people were strongly talking in Sindh that the prime ministerial slot was their right. Keeping their aspirations in view, Zardari said he had decided to first bring a prime minister from the Punjab for only three months and then he would elevate himself to the post.
As the News pointed out, this was Zardari’s third U-turn on the issue of the prime ministership in 60 days—hardly an inspiring performance.
Another theory was that Zardari, a Sindhi, covets the presidency and feels it wouldn’t be acceptable to have both top spots of PM and president held by a Sindhi.
In any case, Fahim was furious, called in a reporter from The News, and unburdened himself in an interview entitled “I am being humiliated, betrayed” .
Maybe Zardari hadn’t foreseen this virtually inevitable eventuality.
From The News :
Zardari, they claimed, read Fahim's interview with a sense of “disbelief”.
The PPP leaders believe that if the diehard loyalist from Sindh is ignored, as indications have started becoming clearer, the party might face an immediate split, as Fahim did not seem to be in a mood to give up so easily, at least this time.
But actually it looks like Zardari went out of his way to provoke Fahim so that he could have a pretext to ostracize a respected and established rival high inside the PPP.
When Zardari and Sharif announced their coalition agreement on Sunday, Fahim was conspicuous by his absence—apparently because Zardari decided to freeze him out of the discussions and failed to notify him of the meeting .
Nawaz Sharif exploited the fissure between Zardari and Fahim to denounce Fahim and put himself forward as the protector...of Asif Zardari, his political rival! as the story entitled Sharif assures Zardari of support to foil plots makes clear.
It looks like Zardari has exploited Sharif’s muscle to keep him in the PPP’s driver seat.
And Sharif--who previously stated his preference for Aitzaz Ahsan as prime minister--apparently is happy to back Zardari for now.
PPP sources...feel confident that the signing of the March 9 historic Bhurban Accord by Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari has not only given a phenomenal boost to the stature of both leaders but it has also helped the latter have firm control over his party facing threats of division.
Not only that the Amin Fahim factor has been controlled significantly but external efforts to create a rift in the party have also faced a serious dent. “Now Asif Ali Zardari is in a comfortable position to name anyone for the office of prime minister,” a party source said, adding even if he himself wants to become the prime minister he would enjoy smooth sailing. [emph. added]
I wonder if publicly humiliating a PPP elder for the sake of a crude, barely disguised power play is going to boost Zardari's stature a great deal.
Clearly, Zardari doesn't care what he does to the PPP as long as he can enter the promised land of the prime ministership and use its good offices to consolidate his personal power and influence.
Heckuva job, Asif.
Zardari, having done a good job of alienating the PPP leadership, can’t afford to have Nawaz Sharif and Aitzaz Ahsan’s hands against him as well--for now.
The next question will be whether Zardari acts on his ostentatious contempt for the judges and tries to undercut Aitzaz Ahsan, whose personal popularity and claims to moral leadership both inside and outside the PPP easily eclipse Zardari's.
Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, although he must believe he is the ultimate target of Zardari's machinations, must be smiling like the cat that swallowed the canary as he contemplates Zardari’s personal vulnerability and his dependence on the relationship with the PML-N.
Zardari's political weakness, paradoxically, made it possible for him to heed Pakistan’s popular will and defy the United States.
Zardari might make it through the next few months and perhaps even make it into the prime ministership or the presidency with Sharif’s help.
Or he might renege on his promise about the judges, provoking Sharif to pull out of the coalition and bringing down the government.
Or he might try to neutralize Sharif through a political, administrative, or judicial vendetta that destroys Pakistan's short-lived civilian polity.
But, given Zardari’s shortcomings of leadership and character, the February 18 elections might well turn out to be the last high-water mark of the Bhutto dynasty in the PPP, as well as in Pakistani politics.