Nov 12, 2009

Last step to nowhere

If a referendum were to be ordered, there seems less and less doubt that most people would wish to see President Asif Ali Zardari make his way out of the Presidency.

It is, after all, hard, indeed almost impossible, to keep principle in view when so much has gone amiss. This was the case too when Mian Nawaz Sharif was ousted in October 1999. General Pervez Musharraf was welcomed by many–including those who had opposed dictatorship. Sharif's megalomaniacal focus on concentrating all powers in his own hands, the storming of the Supreme Court, the terrifying attempt to impose Shariah, the absurd "plane hijacking" drama, the tales of rampant corruption and the extrajudicial killings that led even to petty bicycle thieves being shot on the streets meant many celebrated his fall.

They may have been less inclined to do so had they possessed a crystal ball showing what disaster the Musharraf years would bring, as mainstream parties were shoved to the sidelines and extremist forces given space to grow. The bombings we face today are a legacy of Musharraf's nine years in power.

The inept playing of the solid hand of cards he held after his skilful ouster of former President Musharraf in August 2008 means that Zardari has squandered, one by one, the chances that came his way. Nobody can hope to win any game of cards this way–particularly one played in Pakistan, where forces are pitched against democracy, in the first place. With his wife's tragic death, Asif Ali Zardari rode onto the political centre stage amid a giant wave of sympathy.

He could have taken advantage of this to cancel out the past reputation he brought with him and make a new start. Instead, new corruption charges have surfaced, including the latest linked to land acquisition in Islamabad. With Zardari his son's name too stands tarnished, even before he is old enough to run for public office.

The president has surrounded himself with an unsavoury set of individuals who cement the worst suspicions about him. He has consistently failed to deliver on promises and consistently appeared unable to see how this slump in credibility leaves him–and the PPP government–increasingly vulnerable.

To add to this, people face a situation in which the state has almost completely pulled out from their lives. Shortages of flour have been experienced, sugar has at times been impossible to purchase, power vanishes for hours each day, gas load-shedding now lies ahead, inflation remains sky high, children can no longer safely attend schools and crime of almost every kind has increased.

Politicians have made no real attempt to stay in touch with people. Disgust with the government can be found everywhere, and this means that Mr Zardari and his men struggle to find anything akin to support anyway. A presidential ouster would inevitably bring some sense of grievance, notably in Sindh, but it is likely to be minimal even here.

All this acts to dilute some truths. Mr Zardari has made enemies not necessarily because of all this alone, but also because he is seen as being "soft" on India, too pro-US, too eager to curb the military's powers and too friendly to Baloch nationalists. He has handled each of these delicate matters clumsily, and in some cases with an extraordinary lack of finesse or good sense. Stating in public that he would like to see a nuclear-free subcontinent is, after all, not very wise, given the unfortunate realities we live with.

But there is in this a demonstration of how difficult it can be for politicians to veer away from the course chalked out by the establishment. Benazir Bhutto–always a far more capable strategist and leader than her widower--learnt this too during her interrupted tenures in power.

Beyond the issue of Mr Asif Ali Zardari, we must consider what all this will mean for the PPP–today the only party that has nationwide standing. Maps that show the division of votes underscore this. The jostling to claim the legacy of Benazir Bhutto is one indication of the fact that politicians recognise how significant the Bhutto name still is. Zardari, of course, banked on this in his opportunistic takeover of the PPP; his son, with his mother's surname added to his own, bizarrely inherited a political party and now, still more strangely, we have Mian Nawaz Sharif insisting it is he who is indeed the true heir to the Bhutto throne.

In his speech last week in Gilgit, he stressed how in the hours following the assassination of Benazir her party's workers in Rawalpindi pledged loyalty to him. Mr Sharif–a man associated in many minds with the late General Zia-ul-Haq and his reactionary politics–indeed even implied to people in an area where the PPP's popularity is high that he is a follower of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, taking forward his vision by building Pakistan its atomic bomb.

The skeptical look on the weathered faces of some of his audience, visible on TV cameras, suggest they were perhaps not entirely convinced. The adversity between the PML-N and PPP is, after all, a part of very recent history and a key factor in the democratic disarray we see today.

For this, however, the PPP too must also accept blame. The failures of its own leaders have left room for others to try and commandeer the party. No serious effort was made to halt Mr Zardari in his stride before we descended into our present perilous state.

The party too has failed to keep the people by its side. Leaders such as Makhdoom Amin Fahim, once seen as a possible alternative to Zardari, have given in and fallen in step. They have not even attempted to prove the PPP is a party that can stand on its own feet, and without a Bhutto shoulder to lean on. We need to see now if individuals like Aitzaz Ahsan, emerging according to some forecasts as a key political player for the future, may be able to rise to the challenge.

If they cannot, we face the prospect of witnessing another democratic debacle. With this may come also the splintering of the PPP. Doubts are being voiced as to whether it can remain united in a post-Zardari scenario. The emergence of new factions would of course weaken the party – but it would also damage democracy and once more prove that our country is run from the sinister shadowlands that lie beyond the eyes of people.

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