The accidental president
By S. Akbar Zaidi
IT would be quite fair to say that not a single person, including Asif Ali Zardari himself, in Pakistan or anywhere else could have imagined in December 2007 that by September 9, 2008, he would become the president of Pakistan. Moreover, as Pakistan’s 11th head of state, Asif Zardari is amongst the handful of individuals who have been democratically elected to the high office, and is only the second to have completed his full five-year term.
Zardari also presided over as many as three prime ministers. For someone who was, in an earlier life, known as a playboy, had little education or any work experience, was called ‘Mister Ten Percent’ in Benazir Bhutto’s first government, far worse in her second, and for someone who has constantly been maligned and accused publicly of an unimaginable scale of corruption (for which our impartial courts have always found him innocent), this is quite an extraordinary evolution.
The circumstances which led up to Asif Zardari becoming president are well known. After Benazir’s assassination on December 27, 2007, he appeared in public at first as the grieving widower who had lost someone who was expected to become prime minister in the elections that were scheduled for January 2008 by General Pervez Musharraf.
Zardari was in voluntary semi-exile in Dubai at the time, and, after spending numerous years in jail in Pakistan, was living a life of festive freedom. While the victory of Benazir, who had agreed to be subservient to Musharraf as president, had been much anticipated, it was unclear what Zardari would do once his wife became prime minister.
There was speculation as to whether the former ‘Mister Ten Percent’ would return and once again become a minister in her government as he had done in her second term, or whether he would capitalise on the situation through other means, perhaps even staying on in Dubai, especially since the president of Pakistan with whom Benazir was expected to work, Gen Musharraf, was not particularly fond of him.
All that changed with Benazir’s assassination, and the first public appearances of the widower subdued a strong, particularly Sindhi, sentiment by saying Pakistan khappe at a time when the PPP jiyalas were unable to come to terms with such a monumental loss. He gave stability and reassurance to their emotions and sentiments, gave them a sense of hope, changed Bilawal Zardari’s name publically to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, claiming that Shaheed Bibi had left a will in which the very young Bilawal and Zardari were to be co-chairmen of the party.
Zardari emphasised the policy of reconciliation, rather than one of revenge, which he claimed was the nazria of Shaheed Bibi. With elections postponed till February 2008, it was not surprising that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won a large number of seats riding a sympathy wave following Benazir’s assassination. With Nawaz Sharif emerging as a voice against Musharraf’s military dictatorship and in support of the deposed judges of the Supreme Court, we will never know whether Benazir would have won if she had lived and contested the elections announced for January 2008. Nevertheless, the PPP had more seats than anyone else, and Musharraf asked the party to form the government.
After the elections, it was Sherry Rahman who introduced Asif Zardari as ‘Mister Sonia Gandhi’, implying that, like Gandhi, Zardari would not contest public office and would simply be the party co-chairman playing a role from the outside. The first PPP government formed after the February elections was, in fact, a coalition with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), clearly a rather unique and ironic confluence of two rival parties compared to the 1990s.
Not only was Zardari suggesting the policy of reconciliation, but following the Charter of Democracy between Nawaz and Benazir in London in 2006, and so was Nawaz and his party. Despite the presence of a military dictator as president, who had since been forced to shed his military uniform for civilian attire, this was democratic consensus at work. After Benazir’s assassination, this could not have happened without Zardari’s consent.
A CONSEQUENTIAL PRESIDENT
Perhaps it is inconsequential that the coalition arrangement between the PML-N and (now Zardari’s) PPP broke down, with the former parting ways from the government over the issue of the reinstatement of Supreme Court judges, for this was a rare experiment in Pakistan’s political history without precedent where the two main opposition rival parties were part of the government together. At least on one thing both parties were in agreement: on removing Musharraf as president and both started impeachment proceedings against him soon after forming the government.
Eventually, Musharraf was forced out and the chairman of the Senate became the acting president. In September 2008, Zardari, backed by the PML-N, became president of Pakistan and thus began a presidency and government which made critical interventions in Pakistan’s political structure, a fact which was emphasised on numerous occasions.
If ever there was a constrained political office, constrained by the burden of the past and by circumstances that he himself was not responsible for, it was Zardari’s presidency when the PPP was in power.
There was the issue of the reinstatement of the judges, dismissed by his predecessor, and Zardari was afraid that, if reinstated, they might start proceedings against him and many other politicians. There was also the question of the Pakistan army, despite Musharraf’s resignation, which forced Zardari to spend five years looking over his shoulder for creeping military ambitions.
This was also the period when Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011. Months earlier, Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor and a friend of Zardari, had been assassinated. Both these incidents, while they happened under Zardari’s watch, were not on account of him or his government. Moreover, during this period, judicial activism was at its zenith, questioning all forms of authority – civilian, political, and even military.
To make matters far worse, following the global economic crisis in 2008, there was an oil price boom, with prices touching $140 a barrel, as well as food price inflation where the price of essential items increased many times over. On all fronts, like many countries in the global South, Pakistan was facing critical problems, but, unlike the rest, Pakistan was also dealing with a democratic transition after almost a decade of military rule.
Yet, there were numerous key political and policy interventions by Zardari’s PPP government, well supported by the so-called ‘friendly opposition’ of Nawaz Sharif, that resulted in progress being made towards key issues. The two parties, led by the two leaders, were working for the collective democratic good.
For instance, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution not only reversed and removed many of Musharraf’s interventions, but went far further, and for the first time in Pakistan’s history, and probably a few decades too late, genuine devolution in the form of more powers to provincial governments took place. This was a far cry from Musharraf’s sham devolution of power which was merely symbolic.
Moreover, there was finally consensus on honouring the wishes of the people of the NWFP to name their province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and on giving Pakistan’s Northern Areas a semi-provincial status by renaming the region as Gilgit-Baltistan and giving the region its own political representation. Attempts were also made to redress Musharraf’s adventurism and folly in Balochistan, where locals had become further alienated, through a Balochistan Package, offering financial resources for development.
Adding to the foundational step of the 18th Amendment, which altered the nature of Pakistan’s federation by getting rid of the Concurrent List, was the reformulation of the long overdue National Finance Commission (NFC). Not only that, but for the first time, the NFC Award recognised criteria other than just population, giving weightage to poverty, underdevelopment and special conditions – the effects of terrorism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – which allowed for a more representative distribution of resources to be made.
Moreover, it was through a democratic moment of reconciliation and equity by which Shahbaz Sharif’s government in the Punjab reduced its share in the NFC, giving a greater share to the less-privileged provinces, again unprecedented in Pakistan’s political economy where the Punjab has continued to dominate without concern for other provinces. Clearly, Zardari must personally be given credit for many of these achievements.
THE BAGGAGE OF HISTORY
Asif Zardari, as president of Pakistan, had to deal with many of his own ghosts and much personal baggage from the past, but, not unlike his deceased father-in-law Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he had to come to terms with, and negotiate, a democratic transition following almost a decade of military rule.
While Bhutto was much experienced in the art of politics, was proud and arrogant and ruled a country defeated in war where the majority province won its brutal independence, Zardari was not a politician, and had little experience of direct public responsibility. But he quickly mastered the task he was forced into.
However, 2008 was not as triumphant a democratisation as was 1970-71, when not just the country but, importantly, the military stood defeated. Although there were many important openings after 2008 to put Pakistan’s military spectre permanently to rest – the Bin Laden killing, Mehrangate, and, as a result, open and public criticism of the military, something that happens only once every few decades – but Pakistan’s newly emergent democratic forces lost a particularly important historical opportunity.
Incidents like the Memogate destroyed any credibility civilian political forces had accumulated, and other events and incidents reinstated the hegemony of the military. Furthermore, the consequences of Musharraf’s policies in the way he dealt with militants resulted in scores of suicide attacks killing tens of thousands of civilians, triggering an almost complete collapse of the economy. Even a military dictator, had he been in power, would have struggled with such formidable challenges.
It was not the inexperience of president Zardari which was to blame for the revival of Pakistan’s military and the challenges to democracy, for he had learnt the ropes of governing in difficult and contentious, even confrontational, times. And he did that rather quickly. The fact that Asif Ali Zardari became the first (and, so far, the only) civilian president who passed on power from one democratic government to another, without the military rigging or predetermining the election results, itself speaks volumes of his ability and sanguineness to stabilise Pakistan’s democratic ship.
What happens next in his (or Pakistan’s) political career remains uncertain, but what is clear is that the Asif Zardari presidency of 2008-13 needs a far more measured and impartial analysis than has been the case generally. A more honest assessment would suggest that his role as president has had a particularly significant and positive impact on Pakistan’s process of democratisation and that Zardari played a pivotal role in stabilising Pakistan’s political fortunes after Musharraf.