Nov 14, 2009

The knives are out

By Arif Nizami

The knives are out for Mr Asif Ali Zardari with his detractors predicting that he will not last this winter in his office as president. A section of the media has already written his political obituary whereas there are others who think that the whole exercise is to clip his wings, as an all-powerful Zardari is not acceptable to the ubiquitous military establishment.

The only thing that can be said for sure is a deep sense of uncertainty about his political future. The government's hasty retreat on presenting the NRO in parliament after its ally, the MQM, threatened to vote against it has opened a Pandora's Box of speculations about the future of Mr Zardari and his cohorts,the main beneficiaries of the 'corruption laundering ordinance'.

Hasty summoning of the erstwhile nemesis Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan by both Mr Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani a few days ago has not helped matters. Such are the excegencies of power politics that Ahsan, whose membership of the Central Executive Committee was suspended by the party co-chairperson, and was also physically prevented from proceeding to Naudero to say fateha at his leader late Benazir Bhutto's grave only a few months ago, is now being offered the moon. It is evident that at this juncture the lure of being made attorney general of Pakistan -- and later the governor of Punjab -- is no longer an acceptable option for him.

According to Aitzaz Ahsan, Mr Zardari, as long as he is president, enjoys immunity from prosecution by the courts. But this does not hold true for the rest of his colleagues many of whom are members of the cabinet. Hence, life sans NRO is not business as usual for the PPP government and is bound to pose problems for Mr Gilani as well.

To further compound matters by most accounts are the relations between Mr Zardari and the rmy that have hit an all-time low. Mr Kiyani's reservations on the Kerry-Lugar Bill (KLB) are well known. The army perceives that it virtually caps Pakistan's nuclear programme. These reservations were not only expressed privately in meetings but also in a letter written to the prime minister by the Chairman Joint chiefs of Staff, General Tariq Majeed. Later when nothing worked they were publicly expressed in an ISPR press release issued after the Corps Commanders meeting on the matter.

Historically, the Pakistani establishment has perceived PPP governments, albeit unjustifiably so, as a 'security risk'. And the present military set-up is no exception to this rule. This should have entailed extra caution on the part of Mr Zardari, especially when the principle of civilian control over the armed forces has not taken root in the Pakistani body politic or in its social milieu.

Another bone of contention is the widely held perception about corruption -- euphemistically called lack of transparency in the PPP-led government starting from the top. Reportedly, a couple of months back, a list of patently corrupt ministers was presented to President Zardari in person by a top intelligence sleuth. The president promised to sack those named. But nothing happened with the agency finally being told to mind its own business.

Poor governance or rather lack of it -- although not entirely of Mr Zardari's making -- is another worrisome factor that is bogging down the economy and sapping the confidence of the business community. Most ministers are not performing well, are not interested in their work or simply have no clue. The finance and foreign ministries are among the few exceptions but, with the current wave of terrorism and the rest of the government bogging down the system, a few performing ministers cannot make a difference.

Despite the predictions of gloom and doom for democracy and redoubled the efforts of those who want to derail it for their own nefarious ends, there are strong factors which militate against an extra constitutional change. For starters, Mian Nawaz Sharif notwithstanding his huge trust deficit with Mr Zardari, is not willing to rock the boat.

This is not because of love of Mr Zardari. Mian sahib and his party are high on the national popularity ratings but are also well aware that his turn to rule will only come if the system survives. In this sense, his politics is different from the likes of Imran Khan and Munnawar Hasan who have no stake in the present system. It is also unlikely that coalition partners of the PPP, MQM, ANP or JUI despite some posturing in the end analysis would lend overt support to an extra constitutional change.

On the other hand, even the army, notwithstanding the differences with the government, does not seem to be in take-over mode. It is bogged down in the war on terror and General Kiyani is no Bonaparte. He has the reputation of being an intellectual general who is well aware of the collateral damage of military rule under which of Pakistan has suffered for years. However the same cannot be said about the rest of the institution that traditionally sees itself as the sole protector of national interest.

But the politicians should not stretch their luck too far and must set their house in order. Mr Zardari is still dithering on the repeal of the 17th Amendment and has given March as the deadline to replace it with the 18th Amendment. The Raza Rabbani committee on the 17th Amendment is moving at a snail's pace whereas the PML- N, while on one hand wanting the Charter of Democracy to be implemented as soon as possible, is unnecessarily bogged down with issues like renaming of NWFP.

It is never easy to give up power. But Mr Zardari should know better that the nation ushered the present lot in power and rejected the Musharrafites at the hustings last year in February to usher in a genuine parliamentary system in which the latter will be supreme and the courts independent. The PPP reneged on both these promises. The Chief Justice of Pakistan was restored sadly by behind the scene mediation by General Kiyani whereas the 17th Amendment, a relic of Musharraf, remains intact thanks to Mr Zardari's unexpectedly assuming the mantle of presidency reneging on his commitments.

Instead of acting under pressure, Mr Zardari should wrest the initiative without wasting more time and develop a consensus on issues related to restoring the supremacy of parliament, including the repeal of Article 58 (2B). He should reconcile to being a president in a parliamentary system rather than trying to retain a quasi presidential system under the garb of a parliamentary system. Being the party president gives him ample political clout as has been demonstrated by Sonia Gandhi across the border.

Another issue, which needs urgent attention, not only by Mr Zardari but more so by Prime Minister Gilani, is the issue of governance and transparency. By one estimate there are some 90 people enjoying perks and privileges as federal ministers. Apart from purging corrupt and incompetent ministers, there is a need to drastically cut down the number -- quite a few of whom are not even members of the cabinet but are enjoying perks and privileges on the basis of cronyism or personal loyalties.

There are other sticking points that need to be sorted out directly with the military. Issues like relations with the US and the perception that the present government has become too close for comfort to Washington needs to be resolved. Similarly, the military establishment and the civilians should be on the same page about strategic perceptions and Pakistan's role in the region. Reviving the National Security Council (NSC) or the defence committee of the cabinet are ideas which need to be seriously examined.

The role of the media has also come under scrutiny in the present confusion. Formulas like 'minus-one or minus-two' have appeared without being credibly sourced. Having said that, the media managers of the government have miserably failed. The government should be given due credit for tolerating adverse news and views in the media. However, the time has come to have spin-doctors engaging the media in an effective manner, rather than leaving the job to media managers.

The ultimate survival of the present set-up will depend on whether it delivers in key areas. If it continues to fail, patience with the already fragile democratic institutions is bound to run out. And that will be an unmitigated disaster.

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