BY now even his foes grudgingly admit it: Zardari has proved a great survivor. The man friends refer to as the Teflon President has turned out to be a cannier political operator than anyone thought possible.Learning to turn the other cheek and absorb blows, he's guided his party through the trickiest of political terrain. WikiLeaks tells us Zardari knows he's no BB, but what the past couple of years tell us is that may not necessarily be such a bad thing. The Zardari government's odds of surviving are higher than any other political government's have been at a similar point in its term.
So should we give the man a medal and a pat on the back? Two and a half years ago, the sensible ones would have said yes. Two and a half years later, the answer is slightly more complicated.
Back in 2008, if anyone had offered the possibility of the government completing its full term and a peaceful, democratic transition of power to the next political government, the sensible ones would have grabbed it with both hands. The governance record would have been considered beside the point — just getting the form of democracy right would have been victory enough.
But it turns out even form can come at a great cost.
Internally, there is only one power which is capable of disrupting the democratic process here: the army. Hence the Pakistani euphemism of a 'civil-military imbalance'.
Zardari's political strategy has worked when it's come to dealing with the politicians. The Altaf Bhais and maulanas and PML-Fs and Fata MPs of this country always have been and always will be amenable to inducements. They like a man who they can do business with.
But Zardari's strategy has proved desperately inadequate when applied to the army. Surrendering the national security and foreign policy domains to the army has only emboldened it. Giving a second term to the man soldiers refer to as the chief is … well, the media's focus on the WikiLeaks-revealed foibles and peccadilloes of the civilians to the virtual exclusion of the army's own sins tells a tale of its own. If that's the narrative being pushed in the first week of the second term, then going forward.…
The problem for Zardari has been that the biggest and most powerful political party in the country, the army, doesn't behave like other politicians do. They consider themselves above the muck of politics, no matter the many, many skeletons piled up in their closets. And they clearly consider themselves superior to politicians.
Which means a political strategy based on sharing the spoils when applied to the army is ultimately unworkable. Why would they be content with sharing when they consider the other side to be venal, unpatriotic and stupid?
So Zardari's strategy (make plentiful concessions in return for survival in power) which has proved so successful with politicians, has, when applied to the army, only helped facilitate the most astonishing turnaround in the army's internal position.
Granted, the lows at the end of the Musharraf era were unsustainable and institutional savviness would have engineered some kind of eventual bounce-back. But what we've seen under the latest chief is a return to influence and power for the army on a scale and in a timeframe that would have been unimaginable just two years ago.
And that, if you happen to be one of those quaint, democracy-loving folks, is a very grim thing indeed for this country's future. Completing a full term in office would still be somewhat of an accomplishment for Zardari, but, if the present trajectory continues, few would be able to argue Pakistan would be genuinely more democratic in 2013. What is veneer of power worth if it is hollow from inside?
Could Zardari have done anything differently? Perhaps. It is, though, easy enough to second-guess the past.
If Zardari had picked a more confrontational route with the army, perhaps continuing with his policy of reaching out to India, he would have been pilloried at home as naive and a danger to national security. Or if we had tried harder to subordinate the army to the civilians, he would have been hammered for unnecessarily provoking the 800-pound gorilla.
But going forward Zardari does have an option.
What the WikiLeaks debacle has done is expose the jaundiced view the self-appointed custodians of the national interest have of politicians. (What else can one say about a situation in which the leaders of the two largest parties the country with a combined two-thirds of parliamentary support are dismissed as either unfit or undesirable?)
If this is not news as such, seeing it in black and white does present a political opportunity. For the army there's none of that business about the enemy's enemy being a friend — it's just plain and simple: an enemy is an enemy is an enemy. And the enemies, the unfit and the undesirable, are often, funnily enough, the ones who have genuine electoral support.
Just two years from the last stint of de facto military rule, it has become horribly obvious the beast is not just alive, it's stalking its prey once again.
Zardari's got his turn in power. The ineptness on the governance front almost guarantees his party will not return to power at the next election. But the election after that would be just another five years away — half the life of a typical military regime.
Sharif meanwhile is waiting for his turn. It will almost certainly be his turn the next time round — if relatively free and fair elections are held. And when Sharif's time comes, the last thing he would want is a military which has whetted its appetite by snacking on the previous government.
So there they are, the incentives to cooperate. Zardari and Sharif may not like each other, they may be natural political foes, they may have different ideologies — but cooperation now could serve to extend their political lives.
The alarm has sounded. Apart they could easily sink, together they could swim against the tide. What wasn't possible earlier because of reasons genuine and artificial, personal and political, is now veering on becoming an imperative.
Zardari is the one in power. He will have to make the first move.