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The Zardari legacy

March 26, 2013


FOR the past four decades the PPP has thrived on the enduring Bhutto legacy. But it is the Zardari legacy on which the party is likely to be judged in the upcoming elections.

This time there is no slogan of change of the kind which swept the party to victory in the 1970 elections; nor is there the sympathy wave that brought the PPP back into power in 2008. And after completing its full five-year term in office, the party can no longer play the victim card. With the Bhutto charisma and populism missing, the PPP is likely to face its toughest challenge yet on the hustings this summer.

Can Zardari’s legacy of political survival and deal-making ability return the party to power in these landmark elections? That seems highly unlikely, going by the opinion polls. But it is certainly not impossible in an extremely polarised and fragmented political landscape.

Described as an accidental leader, Zardari is credited by his supporters with navigating his party’s government through choppy waters to complete its full term, a rare feat in the country’s chequered political history. But though his wiliness and knack for coalition-building may have helped his party stay in power, there were other factors too that ensured the democratic process continued despite some serious challenges.

For the first time in Pakistan’s history all the major political parties were a part of the central or provincial governments, making them stakeholders in the system. It was not in the interest of any political party, especially the PML-N, with its control over the country’s most powerful province, to derail the process. It was completely different from the 1990s, when rival political parties were instrumental in ousting each other’s governments.

Despite being locked in constant conflict with the government and allegations that it was overstepping its domain, the Supreme Court has played a huge role in protecting the democratic process. Though at times its overzealous meddling in executive functions jolted the government, the court remained a bulwark against extra-constitutional actions.

Certainly the military’s relations with the PPP government may not have been tension-free, but the former never presented any threat to the latter’s survival. Zardari’s policy of avoiding direct confrontation with the generals and his decision to give an unprecedented three-year extension to Gen Kayani worked well for him. Though the military continued to cast its heavy shadow over the country’s politics, a direct intervention was not possible because of domestic and international pressures. There were no takers for a military takeover.

Perhaps no other democratically elected government in Pakistan has enjoyed such a favourable situation, with political forces across the spectrum united in keeping the country on the democratic track. Yet the five years of the PPP administration failed to deliver on almost all counts, whether governance, economy or basic security. Zardari’s politics of expediency and craftiness was no substitute for good governance. Corruption was accepted as the norm at the highest levels of government and misuse of power became commonplace. Democracy was used to strengthen the systems of patronage and hereditary politics. A precedent in Pakistan’s political history was set: allegations of corruption were levelled against two consecutive prime ministers during the PPP’s tenure.

Mismanagement of the national economy is perhaps this government’s worst legacy, and the one the PPP will find hardest to defend. Five finance ministers and three State Bank governors in five years may become a record in Pakistan’s history. Long power cuts, a large fiscal deficit, falling foreign exchange reserves and dwindling investments marked the PPP’s term. Its unwillingness to tackle the problems that continue to constrain economic growth has created a dire situation for the next government. Perhaps one of the biggest opportunities lost was that the government did not make any real effort to persuade its disparate coalition partners to accept much-needed tax reforms, thereby worsening the country’s chronic fiscal problem.

Despite its commitment to fighting terrorism, the PPP government failed to formulate any clear policy to deal with the problem that is presenting an existential threat to the country. The last five years witnessed a massive rise in militant and sectarian violence and the country’s biggest city and economic jugular turned into a killing field.

Under Zardari’s stewardship the PPP has gone through a complete transformation. Many of those close to Benazir Bhutto have been sidelined and new leaders (some of them fresh entrants) have made their way to high government and party offices. The Bhutto dynasty seems to have been replaced by the Zardari dynasty taking charge of the party.

As a result a major problem facing the PPP is likely to be the lack of a credible and charismatic leader to run the party’s election campaign. Neither of the two former prime ministers, Yousuf Raza Gilani or Raja Pervez Ashraf, have any national stature with which to mobilise public support. Zardari’s move to launch his young son Bilawal before the polls does not seem to be working. It will be extremely tough for an inexperienced and reluctant Zardari-Bhutto scion to pull up a party performing so badly in the opinion polls.

The party has also been concentrating on winning over local influentials and so-called electables. But this strategy may not help it regain lost ground or even maintain its support base in Punjab where, according to opinion polls, it may face a complete rout. At the moment, the Zardari legacy does not bode well for the PPP as it enters what is sure to be a tumultuous election campaign.

The writer is an author and journalist. Twitter: @hidhussain