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The unwanted Caesar

August 01, 2013

THERE must be some Pakistanis left to whom the office of the presidency of Pakistan has some value. There must be at least one Pakistani amongst millions of its citizens unanimously acceptable to “represent the unity of the Republic”.

There has to be some citizen left, above the age of 45, living between the northernmost elevation of Khunjerab Pass and the southernmost seashore of Jiwani, between the portals of the rugged western passes and the permeable eastern borders of Punjab and Sindh, to whom the presidency means something more than simply a constitutionally protected government job, the sinecure sans pareil?

Its attractions are well known. It carries security of tenure for five years (extendable to 10, if re-elected). The successful applicant can expect to reside rent-free in nine-star accommodation in Islamabad, unlimited assassin-proof transport whenever and wherever he travels, lavish tax-free facilities and the opportunity of rubbing palms with visiting heads of state.

It is the sort of job even a Marxist-Leftist would give his right arm for. And yet, no one seems to have wanted it.

The present incumbent Mr Asif Ali Zardari expressed disinterest in a second term and left on an extended trip to Dubai and to the United Kingdom. Interestingly, there has been no raucous appeal by his supporters for him to stay. It is almost as if the chant ‘Go, Baba, go!’, that was once used to such devastating effect by Benazir Bhutto as Leader of the Opposition against her nemesis, the fractious president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, is being mouthed again, this time voicelessly by the PPP against its own.

Mr Zardari’s detractors are convinced that, having reached the age of 58, he has decided to retire, to live off his savings abroad. His immoveable assets in Pakistan — the visible tip of the iceberg of the wealth he has accumulated since his bull’s-eye marriage to Benazir Bhutto 26 years ago — he has left behind, prey to predators in the National Accountability Bureau and to local courts hungry for justice.

The choice of his successor should have been beyond argument. The PML-N which received a mandate almost too heavy to handle had the necessary votes to shoo-in its own candidate. While various names were being released like weather balloons to take readings of the political atmosphere, there was in parallel some drawing-room speculation that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif might want the presidency for himself.

They argued that in December 1997, after the incumbent Farooq Leghari’s precipitate departure from the presidency, Nawaz Sharif had planned to abdicate the prime ministership for the presidency, to sacrifice the right to rule for the opportunity to reign — and then rule.

It is now public knowledge that the senior Sharif — Abbaji — thwarted his son’s ambitions. ‘Reinforce your spine’, he is reported to have said. In other words, ‘Watch your back’. (At that time, the potent Article 58 2 (b) under which President Ghulam Ishaq Khan had removed two prime ministers — Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto — was still in force.)

The nomination of Mr Mamnoon Hussain as the PML-N candidate buried such speculation. But his nomination did not come without hazards. One party’s meat became another party’s poison. Despite that, the PPP could have been persuaded to vote for a common candidate, even if he was the PML-N nominee. After all, Mr Nawaz Sharif had accommodated Mr Zardari five years ago. The ballot, being a secret one, would have allowed legislators to vote across party lines.

Such accommodation stood vitiated once the Supreme Court gave its controversial decision preponing the date of the presidential election. It permitted legislators, because of the closing week of Ramazan, to render their vote to Caesar before rendering service unto their God.

The wind was been taken out of this presidential contest by the decision of the PPP (orchestrated by Senator Aitzaz Ahsan) and its sympathisers to boycott the presidential election. At one level, the election of the president degenerated into an unseemly struggle between the PML-N and its allies versus an opposition caucus led by the PPP. At another, it has brought the PPP Senator Aitzaz Ahsan again in direct conflict with the Supreme Court chief justice whom he helped restore to office.

Such tactics can yield only a Pyrrhic victory. It will allow the PPP and its allies to enjoy the short-term success of a battle won; however, it will surrender to the PML-N and its cronies for the next five years the spoils of an unnecessary war, a conflict as inexplicable and fruitless as the ones in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria.

To political observers, the PML-N’s decision to field a controversial candidate for the presidency and its hesitation in making senior appointments reveals a lack of foresight by a party that has been waiting for the past five years to be in government.

Appointments that have been made so far are under fire, while certain key appointments such as the governorship of the Punjab, the ambassador to the US and the high commissioner to the UK are as yet on hold.

Recently, in its determination to rejuvenate the public sector, the government advertised the top positions in its public sector enterprises. Should the post of the presidency of Pakistan also not be similarly advertised in the national dailies? One can think of at least three million desperate, unemployed Pakistanis who would be more than interested in applying.

The writer is an internationally recognised art historian and author.