PRESIDENT Asif Ali Zardari bows out of the presidential office today after a period of five years which will be remembered as much for its tumult as for its successful constitutional restructuring. Probably among the most controversial politicians the country has known, Mr Zardari shrugged away serious allegations of corruption to occupy the highest office in the land. It was a questionable move, for now Mr Zardari wore two hats — as the head of a party that had just lost its leader and as the country’s president, a role that is theoretically non-partisan. Indeed, even giving up most of his presidential powers, and much later quitting the party post, could not soften the criticism on this score.
However, no amount of censure or attempts by the opposition and institutions of the state to weaken his authority could slacken the presidential grip. Long years in jail had taught Mr Zardari the art of survival. He now applied it to politics. Whether or not the barrage of allegations and relentless disparagement that came his way were justified, Mr Zardari emerged virtually unscathed — even when the challenges were of his own making. This was seen soon after the 2008 elections as his policy of reconciliation unravelled when he appeared averse to honouring a deal struck with the PML-N in his capacity as PPP co-chairman. Similarly, he preferred to defy the courts even if it cost the prime minister his job. And yet, for all his flaws, Mr Zardari must be credited with encouraging decisions that will have a long-term impact. In this the opposition must also be given credit, for though it left no stone unturned to heap opprobrium on the president, there were no diversions from the path of democracy. Instead, we saw a number of praiseworthy endeavours, the 18th Amendment that devolved power to the provinces being just one of them. Giving political space to Gilgit-Baltistan was another laudable effort as was the renaming of NWFP, a long-standing demand of the province’s inhabitants.
It is difficult to say what lies ahead for Mr Zardari and how much he can do in his post-retirement phase to strengthen the national credentials of a party that has been reduced to a provincial entity. Will the political skills honed in office come in handy as he focuses on the PPP’s internal dynamics? Or will his powers of manipulation and tendency to promote family and friends cause rifts in the party? The months and years ahead will tell.