“ISLAMABAD is already jolted and now let’s wait for the aftershocks.” That was my first reaction at a TV talk show on Sept 7 when the anchor asked for my views on Asif Zardari as president. A strong tremor had in fact hit parts of the country the previous night.
Like many political analysts I too had been sceptical about Mr Zardari’s survival in power for long given his highly controversial baggage from the past. But I must admit the master crafter, as he was to become, proved us all wrong.
Not only did Mr Zardari become the first democratically elected president in the country to have completed his full term, he also left the office with a guard of honour. He had the distinction of presiding over an unprecedented transition to another elected government; a remarkable accomplishment indeed for one often described as an accidental leader.
He is also rightly credited for strengthening the democratic process and making changes in the Constitution by granting greater autonomy to the provinces. But these may not be the reasons alone for which Mr Zardari will be long remembered.
Ironically, these were also years of waste for the country’s economy and governance, pushing the country towards financial meltdown.
Though his constitutional powers were clipped under the 18th Amendment, Mr Zardari remained the most powerful political leader in the country. Drawing his power as the chairman of the ruling party, he virtually ran the government from the confines of President House where he was mostly surrounded by his former jail mates and schoolmates.
There is indeed a ring of truth to the widespread perception of his government being one of the most incompetent and corrupt in Pakistan’s recent history. As a result, the country has descended into chaos. It is also a fact that Mr Zardari was, perhaps, the most unpopular and controversial civilian leader to have occupied the country’s highest political position.
For sure it had not been smooth sailing for the former president. Several times in the past five years he had to pull himself back from the brink.
Being Zardari has its own perils. Despite rising to the zenith of power he could never get away from his past reputation and old corruption cases continued to haunt him. His stand-off with the Supreme Court on the issue of the reopening of the Swiss money-laundering case claimed the scalp of one prime minister and kept the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. But to give the devil his due, he never seemed to lose his cool and never panicked.
His relations with the military may not have been smooth, but he had learnt to coexist with the generals, sometimes conceding ground or making compromises. His political dexterity and art of outwitting his opponents were not, however, the only reasons for his longevity in power.
He benefited hugely from the military taking a back seat and the changed domestic political dynamics that had no appetite for any kind of extra-constitutional intervention. Mr Zardari’s non-confrontationist ways also suited the generals.
There was, however, one occasion in early 2012 when his government openly clashed with the generals, raising fears that the president might be forced to step down.
The confrontation was precipitated when Mr Zardari tried to protect Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s then ambassador to Washington. Mr Haqqani was accused of conspiring with the US against the military. Mr Zardari sacked him, but would not agree to his trial on sedition charges. As the tension mounted, Mr Zardari was flown to Dubai for ‘urgent medical treatment’.
It was perhaps at that time that the president was at his most vulnerable point. A report in Foreign Policy quoted US State Department officials on a telephonic conversation with President Obama in which Mr Zardari appeared completely incoherent, which further fuelled conjecture about his health and political future. But weeks later, he was back in the saddle, defying all speculation.
During his tenure Mr Zardari seldom ventured out of the presidency or the high-walled Bilawal House in Karachi, ostensibly because of security concerns. That insulated him from the reality outside. He has never been a popular mass politician, but his government’s appalling performance and charges of rampant corruption involving key members of his government further eroded his credibility. He, however, remained delusional about his party’s chances of success at the polls.
With his political wheeling and dealing he thought the elections were all sewn up in favour of the PPP and its allies. He was extremely confident about winning a second term in office.
That was not to happen. He seemed to have completely underestimated the rising anti-government public sentiment. Mr Zardari may have succeeded against all odds in completing his five-year term, but his party paid a heavy price at the polls for its gross misrule and ineptitude.
Once the country’s most powerful political force with nationwide support, the PPP suffered a humiliating defeat in the elections, with its influence now restricted to rural Sindh and that too seems to be on shaky ground. It was not really a vote for the party on the basis of its provincial government’s performance; it was one driven largely by sub-nationalist slogans.
Mr Zardari may be out of power, but certainly not out of politics. He plans to lead the PPP from his mansion worth billions in Lahore and reportedly gifted to him by Riaz Malik of Bahria Town fame.
The former president finds himself facing the much tougher job of mass politics, which he has very little experience of. He neither has the Bhutto charisma nor the popular appeal that is required to revive the PPP’s political fortunes.
It will take much more than political wheeling and dealing to revitalise a highly demoralised party. Also, with the lifting of presidential immunity, Mr Zardari may once again find himself entangled in renewed legal battles inside and outside Pakistan. Testing times are ahead for the former president.
The writer is an author and journalist.