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Exclusive: The curious Presidency of Mr Zardari

Updated Mar 07, 2016 03:28pm

Asif Ali Zardari made history on September 8, 2013 by becoming the first elected civilian president of the country to complete his constitutional tenure and to be replaced by an elected individual.

What was the defining moment of Asif Ali Zardari’s tenure as President?

On September 8, 2013, Asif Ali Zardari became the country’s first president to complete his constitutional term and hand over duties to another democratically elected president, Mamnoon Hussain — no small achievement for a man occasionally referred to as the ‘accidental president’.

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But what will come to define his presidency: Rising militancy and a plummeting economy; a voluntary (and much-lauded) cession of his own presidential powers or perhaps those record 93 trips abroad? Or will this upcoming transfer of power, unprecedented in Pakistan, go down in the annals of history as Zardari’s greatest feat?

The 18th Amendment

President Asif Ali Zardari will stand out in history as the first president who strengthened the federation and stabilised democracy in Pakistan. Through the 18th Amendment, the parliamentary form of government was restored and several packages for the regions, including Fata reforms, Aghaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan, and the National Finance Commission Award, and the Gilgit Baltistan autonomy, will be remembered as mechanisms to strengthen the federation.

No elected government ever finished its term in Pakistan’s history except the last one. Despite several economic and security challenges, the parliament was strengthened, many laws were passed, especially rights-based laws strengthening fundamental rights in the country, providing for an independent judiciary and independent election commission.

During his time, a new political culture free from horsetrading or victimisation emerged, which, it is hoped, will close doors for any military intervention in the future.

The president’s policy of reconciliation kept the minority government together for five years through coalition building and keeping all parties in the loop on issues of national security, marked by consensus building at every step. Perhaps these legacies explain why he is the only president to have addressed the parliament five times.

**Nafisa Shah* is a member of the National Assembly and a senior member of the Pakistan Peoples Party*

The grin and the cap

General Zia had a wide smile, not ear-to-ear but pretty close. Remarkably, only his lips used to smile, never his eyes. And there was a laugh to go with the eyes, a hollow, sardonic cackle. Asif Ali Zardari has a wider grin, denture pearls all showing and the laugh creasing up to the eyes. Anyone not knowing him well would perhaps be taken in but anyone with even a remote knowledge of his CV would think twice before putting the grin down to simplicity or innocence.

What will remain, after his presidency, the most etched image in people’s minds? Countless trips to China, unannounced trips to Dubai, jaunts in London, stories of pirs and slaughtered black bakras (no joke) to ward off the evil eye? Above all these things will linger, I think, the memory of the grin as if he couldn’t believe his luck, that he was where he was, even earning, incredible as it may sound now, a reputation for political genius.

There was some truth to this; not, of course, of genius but of a good deal of cleverness. No comparisons with Bhutto in any other respect but he was a better politician, in a narrow sense of the word, than his vaunted father-in-law. Bhutto had a knack for making enemies.

Zardari gave ample proof of turning even enemies into friends, or, at least, allies.

Given his expertise in what can only be called high finance, he, perhaps, operated on the principle that every man has his price.

The second thing bound to be noted in any gallery of photographs is the cap he occasionally wore on his visits to Central Asia; almost a monkey cap with ear flaps pulled down. Nothing like the headgear worn, say, in Moscow or Ulan Bator; nothing like your simple karakul cap but a choice, with earflaps, all his own.

**Ayaz Amir* is a former parliamentarian and a columnist for The News*

Keeping the party alive

When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) heartland in rural Sindh was essentially robbed of a protector and guardian. This view is derided and sneered at in constituencies such as Karachi’s NA-250, and Lahore’s NA-126, but the contemptuous urban bias against the PPP is exactly part of the sustenance of Sindh’s love affair with the Bhuttos and the PPP.

President Zardari was never supposed to be a national leader, and his accidental presidency will forever be tainted by this mere fact. But for all the criticism he has and will endure,

His legacy will likely be defined by how he kept Pakistan’s oldest and most robust political party alive and kicking in the wake of BB’s funeral.

Pakistan’s political history is essentially a story of political parties repeatedly brutalised and demonised so as to create the enduring myth of the military’s capabilities to govern. Every other electorally viable party has seen births, rebirths and even more re-rebirths, because the military establishment has successfully cracked open these parties over and over again to serve the dictator of the day. Not the PPP.

The PPP survived General Zia’s execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his exceptionally spirited attempts to eliminate “traces of Bhutto” altogether. Yet, despite terminating Bhutto and the significant divide between BB and her brother Murtaza Bhutto, Zia failed. BB’s enduring legacy is the sustenance of the PPP. Benazir loyalists are repulsed by the comparison, but it is undeniable that Zardari did for the PPP from 2007 to 2013, what she did for it from 1977 to 1988 — he kept it alive.

When they killed BB, Pakistan was supposed to implode into an ethnic free-for-all, from Karachi to Khyber. The PPP was supposed to fold under the pressure of being essentially Bhutto-less, and the political process was supposed to have been terminated.

System-wide resilience can never be attributed to individuals, but if there are two men that deserve credit for the resilience of Pakistani politics in the wake of BB’s assassination, they are Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Asif Ali Zardari. Sharif is constructing his legacy as we speak, but Zardari has already written his. He has bequeathed a living, breathing party to senior leaders and the next generation. What they do with it now, will be their responsibility.

**Mosharraf Zaidi* is an analyst and a current-affairs commentator*

Alamdar road, Quetta

Usually short and shiny, the idea of ‘defining moments’ has its critics. But as with T20s, tweets and fast food, they suit the times we live in. The troubles with this presidency are plain: there are too many of them. Five years of ugliness makes for some compelling press.

There’s the snapshot of how it all began: Asif Ali Zardari, formerly in jail, taking oath of office in pinstripes — a luxury afforded to a man whose job history begins and ends with First Husband. Invited to the occasion is Hamid Karzai, a sign of five years of American largesse to come our way, via Raymonds and Salalas and drones strikes. There’s the visual of Zulfiqar Mirza, Quran on head, hand over heart, pink from flooding Karachi with weapon licenses, ensuring the streets bled for years. After reducing Lyari to a pile of ash, the president’s home minister reminds those ‘bhookay nangay’ Muhajirs how they had sought out Sindh. And while the coalition partners smile at each other in Islamabad, Karachi becomes a whirl of ethnic bloodletting.

But in the five years of arresting images, it will take a lifetime to forget Alamdar Road, Quetta. Then, as with the floods of 2010, as with the funerals of the shaheeds that fight terror so that we may live oblivious, it was defined by a president just not there. For the Hazaras. For the mothers that refused to bury their dead. For common human dignity.

As the federation tore itself apart, the symbol of the federation, of being whole, was nowhere to be found.

He stayed inside, in whichever fortress of the week, sending along sock puppet Raja Pervez Ashraf instead. A premier that stood out as awful in a line of awful premiers, Mr Ashraf sat among ashen-faced relations numb in the face. When they wept for redress, the information minister gently reminded them, “This isn’t a dialogue”.

But yes, the 18th Amendment.

**Asad Rahim Khan* is a lawyer and a columnist for the Express Tribune*

Farewell speech on August 26, 2013

Asif Ali Zardari, the most vilified, criticised, unpopular and defamed politician in the history of Pakistan, and the first president to have addressed joint meetings of the parliament five times without interruption, saw an elected parliament completing its term; welcomed a new parliament constituted as a result of general elections; administered an oath to his political rival as the prime minister; witnessed his hand-picked prime minister disqualified by the Supreme Court for not writing a letter to reopen cases against him in the Swiss courts; ignored his second prime minister in bowing to the Supreme Court and dispatching the letter to the Swiss authorities after dragging court proceedings for four years; received a letter from the Swiss authorities expressing inability to reopen the cases; took credit for reconciliation in politics enabling the parliament to make significant amendments in the Constitution, and experienced an active, independent and aggressive media and a popularly restored judiciary. Seldom seen outside the walls of the Presidency; yet, the most talked about and criticised citizen of Pakistan. Probably relishing the agony of those predicting his ouster and arrest for four years. He witnessed the elections of his successor in office without offering himself as a candidate. None were his defining moments.

The defining moment, however, was his first farewell speech on August 26, 2013, in which he declared he would be leaving the office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan satisfied.

The most vilified, criticised and unpopular citizen will become the first President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in the past 66 years to have completed his constitutional term; he will hand over the mantle to an elected successor and leave the Presidency with, according to him, a clear conscience. It will end the debate on immunity but his portrait will forever hang on the walls of the Presidency, along with others as an elected President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

**Athar Minallah* is a Supreme Court advocate*

September 8, 2013

Whilst Zardari was president, economic growth slumped to below three per cent per annum. Inflation broke the back of the salaried and wage earning class, and money lost purchasing power. Social services declined, raising health and other costs for the marginalised; security deteriorated to the point that there has been a flight of capital and educated manpower from Pakistan. It can be gathered from this analysis that under President Zardari’s tenure, the country went downhill.

But is that the full story? Zardari turned out to be a very smart president, indeed. Lest it is forgotten that before becoming president, he not only suffered imprisonment and torture but also lost his wife, Benazir Bhutto, due to state negligence. Despite all these drawbacks, he and his allies made some remarkable achievements that any political party or alliance will be unable to match for a long time to come. In my view, his outstanding contributions to the nation include the passage of the 18th Amendment that devolved power from a very centralised and ethnically dominated central government to the provinces. He and Raza Rabbani were unmatched in this. The passage of the seventh NFC award transferred more funds to the provinces than was ever thought possible. Here, the contributions of his finance minister, Shaukat Tarin, were outstanding. He lasted through the institutional crisis created by the Memogate maneuver and later the Tahirul Qadri drama; yet, his policy of nonchalance prevented a tussle with the military and saved it from a crisis after the Bin Laden raid.

To my mind, his greatest contribution was to nurture the system of governance and to take it unharmed, for the first time in our history, from one election to the next. No Pakistani leader has ever done this before, nor is this feat likely to be repeated. To my mind, Asif Ali Zardari will rank as one of our most remarkable and astute presidents ever despite all the contradictions of character he displayed. He will encapsulate all this when he hands over the baton to his successor on September 8. It is no mean achievement indeed.

**Khalid Aziz* is a retired bureaucrat*


Text by Herald

Videos produced and edited by Kurt Menezes, Asif Umar, Shameen Khan and M.Umar /

Interviews by Shameen Khan and Qurat ul ain Siddiqui /

Illustrations by Shameen Khan

Project manager Shameen Khan /

Executive Producer: Musadiq Sanwal/

Photo Courtesy: Dawn Archives

Outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari is the 11th head of state of Pakistan and is also the former co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party. During his tenure at the presidency Pakistan achieved many ‘firsts’ and the PPP led coalition government became Pakistan’s first democratically elected government to complete its tenure.

Subsequently under Mr. Zardari’s presidency Pakistan also saw the first smooth transfer of power from one elected government to another.

Moreover no executions were carried out during the past five years after a presidential order was issued in 2008 imposing a moratorium on the death penalty.

Ascent to presidency

The murder of the two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto in Dec 2007, who was also the chairperson of the PPP, meant that mantle of the PPP's leadership fell on her widower Asif Ali Zardari till their son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari came of age.

The PPP, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Awami National Party (ANP) announced the formation of a coalition government after the Feb 2008 elections in which the Mr. Zardari-led PPP had won a simple majority in the Sindh Assembly besides coming second in Punjab, the NWFP and Balochistan assemblies after the PML-N, ANP and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), respectively.

A coalition between the parties which were in the opposition during the predecessing government, under the military rule of dictator Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf, was announced on Feb 21 and Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani was sworn in as prime minister in March 2008 amid issues about the independence of judiciary, including the reinstatement of about 60 judges of superior courts deposed after the Nov 2007 emergency, and the political future of the then president Musharraf.

President Asif Ali Zardari and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif.  — File Photo
President Asif Ali Zardari and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. — File Photo

On Aug 16 the ruling coalition prepared impeachment charges against the military strongman on violation of the constitution and misconduct. As a result Musharraf announced his resignation two days later.

Asif Ali Zardari emerged as the most prospective contender for the post of the president of Pakistan after receiving the backing of his own party and some PPP-allies in the government.

The PML-N announced its exit from the ruling coalition, five months after it was formed, citing difference over the issues of reinstatement of the deposed judges and unilateral nomination of Mr. Zardari as a presidential candidate.

Finally on Sept 9 2008 Asif Ali Zardari was sworn in as the 11th President of Pakistan.

Highlights of term

Asif Ali Zardari with former governor Punjab Salman Taseer. — File Photo
Asif Ali Zardari with former governor Punjab Salman Taseer. — File Photo

President Zardari imposed governor’s rule in Punjab on Feb 25 2009 and Governor Salman Taseer became the head of the provincial set up after the Supreme Court issued a verdict disqualifying the Sharif brothers.

The government on March 17, 2009 officially announced the restoration of the judiciary, which was sacked by former ruler Musharraf

The government also initiated the Aghaz-i-Huqooq-i-Balochistan package which promised of probes into political murders, halting the construction of new cantonments as well as more local control on resources for the Baloch.

The government also managed to forge a consensus for the seventh National Finance Corporation (NFC) award whereas Mr. Zardari also surrendered the president’s power to dissolve Parliament under the 18th Amendment.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court of Pakistan on Dec 16 2009 declared that the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) as never to have existed and against the Constitution by reviving all cases and reversing acquittals of its beneficiaries which included President Asif Ali Zardari among other politicians.

Shortly before handing over of his powers under the 18th Amendment President Zardari on Mar 10, 2010 signed the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill, 2010, which was aimed at providing a safe working environment for women in Pakistan.

The 18th amendment also renamed North West Frontier Province to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It went through the Senate on April 15, 2010 and became an act of parliament after being signed by President Asif Ali Zardari the same month.

President Asif Ali Zardari walking through the flood water during his visit to Shaheed Benazirabad in August 2010. — File  Photo by APP
President Asif Ali Zardari walking through the flood water during his visit to Shaheed Benazirabad in August 2010. — File Photo by APP

In August 2010, President Zardari visited Sindh's areas affected by one of the worst flood disasters to have struck the country.

In Jan 2011, Governor Punjab Salman Taseer was gunned down in Islamabad by one of his security guards, Mumtaz Qadri, of the Punjab Elite Force.

Qadri later said he had killed Taseer because of what he said was the governor’s criticism of the blasphemy law.

The president had asked Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah and MNA Faryal Talpur to attend Taseer’s funeral on his behalf. The funeral was also attended by then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Moreover Pakistan's government minister for religious minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also killed by gunmen on Mar 2 2011in the Federal capital city of Islamabad.

The murder was claimed by Al Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan militants.

During Zardari’s presidency tenure another aide of the president and the bodyguard of his slain wife were also targeted by unknown militants.

In May 2011, PML-Q joined the PPP-led coalition government at the centre after coalition ally MQM stepped out of the government.

The entry of PML-Q managed to add to the governement’s achievements and the portfolio of the first ever deputy prime minister was given to Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi.

The year 2011 also witnessed the lowest ebb in ties between the United States and Pakistan which included the Raymond Davis episode, the Osama Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, and the attack by US forces on a Pakistani security checkpost in Salala.

Pakistan decided to shut down the Nato supply route in reaction to the incident. In July 2012, however the route was reopened, after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was sorry for the loss of life in a botched air raid.

In Nov 2011, Mansoor Ijaz, a controversial Pakistani-American businessman, named Husain Haqqani, the then Pakistani ambassador to the US, as the source to a memo sent to the then American military chief days after the May 2 US raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, seeking his help to avert a possible military coup in Pakistan.

Haqqani denied the allegation and resigned from his position on Novermber 22nd saying he was ”happy to face an inquiry” into the affair.

After a few weeks of intense drama, the controversy mysteriously disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced.

The Supreme Court on June 19 2012 declared Yousuf Raza Gilani disqualified from holding a seat in the parliament from the date of his conviction on April 26, 2012 by a seven-member bench for contempt of court over the governments inaction to write to the Swiss authorities to open graft cases against President Zardari.

Gilani was convicted for contempt over not implementing the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling on the NRO.

President Asif Ali Zardari in a meeting with Raja Pervez Ashraf. — File photo by INP
President Asif Ali Zardari in a meeting with Raja Pervez Ashraf. — File photo by INP

Following Gilani’s dismissal another PPP candidate Raja Pervaiz Asharaf was elected as the 25th Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on June 22, 2012

Besides the government of Balochistan was dismissed in Jan 2013 and governor’s rule was imposed in the province. The measure was taken days after the bombings in Quetta that killed over 100 people, most of them Hazaras.

Moreover President Zardari was also the subject of a petition seeking contempt of court proceedings against him for not complying with a Lahore High Court ruling declaring political activities by the president unconstitutional as he was co-chairman of the PPP as well as the President of the republic.

As a result, he relinquished his post of PPP co-chairman and made Bilawal the party’s patron-in-chief.

Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf stepped down from his post and a caretaker set-up was installed in the coming days as President Zardai oversaw the May 2013 elections in which the PML-N came into power and apart from the MQM most parties in the earlier coalition government suffered defeats.

Finally on Sept 8 this week President Zardari became the first democratically elected president to complete his term and leave office without creating a crisis in the country’s checked history.

The day Mamnoon Hussain was elected as Pakistan’s next president, talk show hosts and their guests were having a field day. Some were aghast that a political nobody was set to enter the presidency, others were making snide remarks about the president-elect’s culinary talents whereas a few saw his election as a welcome continuation of the democratic process. There was also a class dimension to all that — a common man beating the system. However, the one serious underlying point in the media circus was that a docile or – harshly put – a ‘dummy’ president was being installed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. We all know that a ‘dummy’ president is a bad president, or is he?

Pakistan’s early years and the first two presidential tenures, in particular, need to be looked at in some detail to understand the historical context that has shaped the lens with which we view the office of the president today. India and Pakistan both inherited the office of the Governor General from their colonial masters, and for the first nine years of Pakistan’s existence, the country did not have the office of the president. It was only when the 1956 Constitution was promulgated that the last Governor General, Iskander Mirza, became the first president.

Under the 1956 Constitution, the executive authority of the federation was to be vested in the president who was to act in accordance with the advice of the cabinet, “except in those matters in which he was empowered to act at his discretion”. The discretion was generally limited to making administrative appointments but its most significant part was to appoint a prime minister from amongst the members of the National Assembly — a task performed by the Crown in the United Kingdom. The president could impose an emergency or remove the prime minister if, in his opinion, the prime minister had lost the confidence of the assembly. That may seem to give undue power to the president but, to give it some context, the presidential office was after all a metamorphosis of the Governor General’s position which combined the powers of the head of state and the head of government.

The 1956 position was bang in the middle of extremes that we were to see starting from General Ayub Khan right up to Hussain.

After kicking out Iskander Mirza, Ayub Khan abrogated the constitution and became Pakistan’s first chief martial law administrator. Soon, he installed himself as the president without any election. Without a trace of irony, he introduced a system of local government named Basic Democracy in 1959. The elected Basic Democrats were to also act as an electoral college in a referendum to legitimise his assumption of the office of the president and give him the mandate to make a constitution. In 1960, these Basic Democrats were required to vote by a secret ballot on a brief yet slickly phrased question: “Have you confidence in President Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, Hilal-i-Jurat?”

General Ayub Khan installed the Basic Democrats to legitimise his assumption of power as president of Pakistan.
General Ayub Khan installed the Basic Democrats to legitimise his assumption of power as president of Pakistan.

This process undid the system of electing the president as given in the 1956 Constitution, and also reintroduced limited voting rights instead of universal suffrage. In hindsight, Basic Democracy, the allowance to make a new constitution and the referendum question were indicative of the time warp we are in. Basic Democracy systems would keep coming back with different names, and both General Ziaul Haq and General (retd) Pervez Musharraf would have recourse to Ayub Khan’s toolkit of constitutional changes and referendum.

The 1962 Constitution, framed under Ayub Khan’s ‘guidance’, completely altered the scheme of the previous constitution, introducing a presidential form of government. Ayub Khan’s presidency was certainly the high point of presidential power in our history. The president was elected independently of the legislature and exercised all executive power. Ayub Khan remarked about this new scheme by saying, “We have adopted the presidential system as it is simpler to work, more akin to our genius and history, and less liable to lead to instability, a luxury that a developing country like ours cannot afford.”

Simple over complex, stability over debate — again, the precedent set by Ayub Khan was to be used in the future to deny the unaffordable luxury of complexity and debate to the country. Ayub Khan’s bid to get re-elected in 1965 saw probably the most controversial, farcical presidential election in our history. He went head-to-head with Fatima Jinnah, with the electoral college being the newly-elected, controlled Basic Democrats. Ayub Khan won the election through methods “akin to our genius and history”, using force and bribes in turns to woo the Basic Democrats to his side. His eventual decline through a popular revolt led another army chief – General Yahya Khan – to become the president without an election.

Yahya Khan was followed by Zufikar Ali Bhutto as president, for a brief period of time, until the 1973 Constitution was adopted. The new constitution, once again, upended the previous constitutional scheme as far as the office of the president is concerned. The all-powerful president was now not even a shadow of himself — nothing but a figurehead, a rubberstamp and, perhaps, a dummy. Chaudhry Fazal Elahi became the first president under the 1973 Constitution. He was a seasoned politician but hardly a stalwart, much like Hussain. Jokes of his helplessness and obedience to the prime minister still echo in the political annals. The presidency – apart from the comic literature that arose from it – was without event.

Left to right: Chaudhry Fazal Elahi, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Left to right: Chaudhry Fazal Elahi, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

In 1977, when General Ziaul Haq took over power, he retained Elahi as the president. The constitutionally elected president was happy to be a prisoner in his own palace, and it was only the prospect of signing Bhutto’s death warrant that prompted him to resign — he was not loyal enough to resign when his party leader was arrested but was not disloyal enough to sign his death warrant. This led Haq to appoint himself the president, initially unelected but later endorsed in a sham referendum.

The details of Haq’s rule are not the subject here. He, however, did transform the office of the president for many years to come. He did so by inserting the Eighth Amendment in the 1973 Constitution, more specifically, Article 58 (2)(b), which allowed the president to dissolve the National Assembly when, in his opinion, the constitutional machinery of the country had broken down. Haq hardly needed any constitutional provision to allow him to do that (although he did use that article when removing Mohammed Khan Junejo’s government), but the presidents following him, namely Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Farooq Leghari, did. After Haq’s exit, the president was largely irrelevant in the everyday running of the state but with Article 58 (2)(b) still a part of the constitution, he had an ultimate and fatal power to inflict a deathblow on the elected governments.

The presidential tenures of Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Leghari were steeped in the stories of intrigue, like the rest of the country at the time. They both used Article 58 (2)(b) as a final act in their showdowns with the elected prime ministers. The irony is that the Supreme Court upheld all their government dismissals and parliament dissolutions, except one. In 1993, in the sole exception to the usual course, both the president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, and then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had to go home, even after the court had restored the assemblies and the government.

Chief of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam–Fazl, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, congratulates Mamnoon Hussain on his victory in the presidential election
Chief of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam–Fazl, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, congratulates Mamnoon Hussain on his victory in the presidential election

Justice Rafiq Tarar – like Elahi before him, and like Hussain after him – was a gentleman, and to paraphrase P G Wodehouse, once you had said that about him, you had said all that could possibly be said. Tarar’s election as the president had a troubled start when his nomination papers were rejected by the acting chief election commissioner on the grounds that he had made remarks in the past which brought the “judiciary into ridicule”. The Lahore High Court later suspended the order of the acting chief election commissioner, allowing the election to go ahead. (The more things change, the more they remain the same, or maybe they do not change at all. Consider the judiciary’s intervention in the latest presidential election.)

Musharraf, not bothering about constitutional niceties, appointed himself as Chief Executive of Pakistan, as if the country was a private limited company. Like Haq, he did not remove Tarar, and like Elahi, Tarar watched his party chief get arrested, sent to prison and, later, to exile before his own removal which allowed Musharraf to become the president (initially without so much as even a mention of an election but, later, endorsed through a Zia-esque referendum). His later election, while he was still the army chief, was uniquely scandalous and shameful, even by our basement standards. Musharraf, however, did not use Article 58 (2) (b) even when it was present on the statute books during his regime. It was later scrapped by the 18th constitutional amendment. When Asif Ali Zardari became the president, Article 58 (2)(b) was still valid, and that may explain why he chose to become the president rather than the prime minister — a president bent on mischief could have used that article against his party’s government, to dismiss it before the expiry of its constitutional term.

Now comes Mamnoon Hussain, all set to replace Tarar as the harmless loyalist. His election journey got off on the wrong foot. The Supreme Court was petitioned by a member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz to have the election date changed because the originally scheduled date was falling on the 27th of Ramzan, when members of the electoral college would be busy with spiritual obligations. In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court accepted the petition on the same day and changed the date of the election without hearing the opposition candidates.

Above and below: Mohammad Khan Junejo and General Ziaul Haq with Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1985; Rafiq Tarar with General (retd) Pervez Musharraf
Above and below: Mohammad Khan Junejo and General Ziaul Haq with Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1985; Rafiq Tarar with General (retd) Pervez Musharraf

Prima facie violations of natural justice aside, the Supreme Court practically made the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) defunct. Only the ECP is constitutionally empowered to decide or change the presidential election schedule. As a first casualty of such trespassing of the ECP’s powers, Fakhruddin G Ebrahim, the chief election commissioner, resigned. The larger implication of the court’s intervention, however, is that it has dented the credibility of the election process as well as that of the office of the president and the Supreme Court itself. And it was unnecessary. Hussain would have won, in any case.

The purpose of this not-so-brief history is to understand wherefrom the office of the president derives its power. If one generalises, three broad categories of presidents can be made — the powerful: Ayub Khan, Haq and Musharraf; the dummies: Elahi, Tarar, and now, Hussain; and finally, the intriguers: Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Leghari.

These categories do not include all presidents but they do illustrate a basic point: The powerful presidents have had their source of strength outside of the electoral process and inside the barracks and the General Headquarters (GHQ). Zardari could, arguably, make it into the powerful category, his power being primarily derived from an external source — his position as the co-chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party. The dummies were appointed by the heads of their political parties, and perhaps, deliberately chosen because they were cut off from an independent political powerbase. The intriguers were, basically, like the dummies but enjoyed the powers of Article 58 (2) (b), and perhaps, the GHQ’s helping hand.

With the source of strength not being the office of the president itself, does the electoral process for the president become unimportant? Historically, it has not been terribly important in power play. Now, however, we find ourselves in a unique situation. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, there was a president and a ‘president-elect’. No overthrows, no intrigues — one president departing as another is elected. And that makes the Supreme Court’s decision all the more damaging and depressing. Even if Zardari falls in the category of powerful presidents, his political credibility emanated from the electoral process that had installed him in the presidency.

Unlike the men in khaki, he had a stake in the democratic process. Even if for self-interest, Zardari was history’s agent for a democratic transformation. These are baby steps, perhaps, but certainly in the right direction. Now all of this risks being undone by the Supreme Court judgment. Hussain was never going to be De Gaulle, yet, he necessarily needed not be Elahi or Tarar, which he will be now. Dummies have been better than strongmen hands down, yet that is not saying all that much.

Both the dummies of the past did not put up a fight at all (or even resign) when military adventurers took over. The docile tend to be docile even when their core values are attacked. Nonetheless, while constitutionally elected Elahi and Tarar are ridiculed as dummies, Ayub Khan’s portrait adorns many a truck plying on G T Road and his ‘decade of prosperity’ is still eulogised in textbooks, never mind his usurpation of power.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, identifies the “Warren Harding Error” of how Harding, probably the worst and the most ill-informed president of the United States, made it to the White House because he looked “presidential” — handsome, vague, simple and having a wonderful voice. We persist with the error. Commandos and field marshals still look ‘presidential’ to us. Hussain’s election was an opportunity to set out (or perhaps continue) on the very long journey to rectify it, and it stands squandered.

The president still has an extremely important role as the head of state, particularly with regard to the federation, and particularly in a federation as fragile and divided as ours. Formal constitutional powers have little importance in such a state of affairs but the perception of relative neutrality and political credibility is what matters. That perception of a neutral president elected through a credible electoral process has, perhaps, been irredeemably damaged by the Supreme Court order, even before it could have been built.