Next Despot?


There is never a dull moment in Pakistani politics, even if much of the politicking revolves around familiar themes. Just a day before Parliament blasted the US for its first confirmed ground attack on militants in Pakistan, it elected Asif Ali Zardari President of Pakistan. President Zardari soon promised that Pakistan would amplify its support for further US action against these same antagonists.

The US set up a military base in Pakistan soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Then as now there was bitter condemnation from Pakistan’s politicians and commentators when General, later President, Pervez Musharraf confirmed his regime’s support in the US "War on Terror".

It is possible that the General’s replacement, Zardari, may turn out to be a civilian dictator himself, much as his late father-in-law, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, did when he replaced General Yayha Khan as "Civilian Martial Law Administrator" of Pakistan in 1971.

On one interpretation, Zardari’s elevation to the presidency is a remarkable, phoenix-like revival for a man long discredited by a series of corruption allegations that saw him in jail for 12 years between 1990 and 2004. According to papers filed in a British corruption case against him, Zardari still suffers psychological scars from that ordeal.

On another, less flattering interpretation, Zardari’s elevation reflects the depressing state of Pakistan’s civilian politics. He only grasped the presidency because of the murder of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and because Musharraf was sidelined. The Pakistan Muslim League’s Nawaz Sharif, now his greatest rival, has been happy to sit in opposition. With Pakistan facing serious economic and security crises, now could be a good time not to be in government – although Zardari may beg to differ.

Last year proved to be a watershed for the billionaire co-chair of the PPP. Three years of exile from Pakistan came to an end after Musharraf issued a "National Reconciliation Order" that exculpated him and Bhutto of all corruption charges. After the untimely murder of his wife in December, he was elevated to the chairmanship of the PPP which, on paper, he shares with his son. As leader of Pakistan’s largest government partner, he inherited the lion’s share of political power after Musharraf’s resignation in August.

Such was the inevitability of Zardari’s victory in the Presidential elections that his image was plastered throughout the nation’s capital, Islamabad, many days before the vote.

Significantly, President Zardari gained the blessing of Washington just as his wife had on the couple’s return to the country last year. It was revealed last month that Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador to the UN and a long time friend, had been in regular contact with Zardari throughout the political wrangling of this and last year. Although US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard Boucher reacted angrily to the revelation, sending a now infamous email to Khalilzad, the contact was widely interpreted as a signal for Washington’s endorsement of Zardari.

But Pakistan’s new President will have to tread carefully between local and external pressures despite these early victories.

The pressure Pakistan is facing in its international relations has grown, but has not changed in its nature. The continuation of militancy in several tribal agencies along its border with Afghanistan has emboldened the Taliban and Al Qaeda thanks to a series of excursions by Pakistan and foreign troops that have killed more civilians than militants and displaced hundreds of thousands.

There is now extreme international pressure on Pakistan to snuff out the insurgency. Much of that has to do with the dynamics of US foreign policy. With Iraq a clear failure, Iran unlikely to be an immediate threat and a new President in Washington very soon Pakistan has become the logical next target in Washington’s War on Terrorism.

Ordinary Pakistanis remain ambivalent towards the Taliban insurgency. The more pressing issue for most is security of livelihood. With a deflated economy struggling under the weight of inflation and a power supply that cannot satisfy demand, people are desperate for Islamabad to take the lead. That Zardari is a well known businessman with a range of shady overseas assets is something of a cold comfort.

Equally worrying is Zardari’s insistence that Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Supreme Court Chief Justice dismissed by Musharraf last year, will not be reinstated. Officially that is the policy of Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party and not his own. The concern is that the judicial crisis that has raged since March 2007 has unduly politicised Chaudhry, making it impossible for him to be an independent judge.

But that argument is neutralised by the fact that the PPP has offered Chaudhry a junior judicial post. His successor, current Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, was himself a political appointment made by Musharraf last year.

The underlying concern is that Chaudhry is far too independent for Zardari.

Accountability is perhaps Zardari’s most difficult sell. Even when he was a minister in the second Benazir Bhutto government, Zardari was a difficult character to track. Since taking over the leadership of the PPP he has removed all of his slain wife’s most trusted advisers.

To be sure, Zardari has promised to remove the sweeping presidential powers that have enabled past presidents to dismiss parliament. But there is a deep skepticism about this promise throughout the country. "I can guarantee you, this will not be done," one senior bureaucrat from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat told me on condition of anonymity. Ordinary folk in the streets of Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore say much the same thing.

"Democracy is the best revenge," say the Zardari posters. But developments so far suggest there’s still plenty of space left for another chapter in Pakistan’s long history of absolute rule.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.