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Zardari’s oblique warning

Updated November 17, 2018


THE tone has hardened, but the message is not yet clear. On Thursday, PPP supremo and former president of Pakistan Asif Zardari launched what appeared to be verbal attacks against two targets: Prime Minister Imran Khan and anti-democratic forces in the country that Mr Zardari alleged have helped propel the PTI to national power. Because Mr Zardari appears to have mastered the art of insinuation, indirect references and seemingly speaking in riddles, he has left himself with space to deny what may be attributed to him. There is also the likelihood that, at least for now, Mr Zardari would prefer not to repeat his outburst of June 2015, which led to his temporary self-imposed exile from Pakistan and plunged the PPP into a crisis. Nevertheless, in his speech in Badin on Thursday, Mr Zardari used some of his strongest language in recent times to denounce what he claimed is a failing governance experiment that will cost the country dearly. But it is not enough.

Perhaps Mr Zardari should consider speaking directly about what he perceives are threats to the democratic order in the country. In the past, when the PPP boss has talked of threats to the democratic project, his warnings have coincided with legal jeopardy for him and his associates. The coincidence inevitably reduced the impact of Mr Zardari’s statements from a democratic perspective. Unhappily, Mr Zardari’s latest salvo against anti-democratic forces in the country has also coincided with what appear to be stepped-up efforts to investigate the PPP leadership. So, if the party is serious about confronting these forces, then Mr Zardari and the rest of the PPP leadership should speak directly and clearly about what they understand to be the main threats to political stability and the democratic order. If, for example, Mr Zardari believes that long-standing tensions between sections of the national political leadership and unelected state institutions are undermining democratic institutions and perpetuating a governance crisis, then it is surely incumbent on the PPP boss to not just say so but also suggest a road map to bolster democracy.

Democratic continuity is vital to the eventual and irreversible strengthening of the democratic process. Neither Mr Zardari nor other opposition leaders should be expected to recklessly plough ahead with attacks on an elected government. The ultimate lesson of the 1990s should not be unlearned: when civilians fight among themselves, it is the anti-democratic forces that benefit. But the path of self-interest, where the legitimate national political leadership only speaks out when it finds itself under investigation or the threat of attack, will not lead to any meaningful gains for democracy. Mr Zardari has an immense national platform, as do several other opposition figures. Why not use it for a persuasive democratic argument than grandstanding and brinkmanship?

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2018