COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan's New President Faces an Uphill Task
Weekly Pulse
September 12-18, 2008
On Tuesday (September 9), Asif Ali Zardari took oath as the 12th President of Pakistan. It was a gracious ceremony marked by populist slogans of Jeeya Bhutto and cheering tributes to Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had flown in to grace the occasion. Following the oath-taking ceremony, the Afghan leader sat next to President Zardari at a press conference in the Presidency, a historic occasion in itself given the recently aggravated hostility between Pakistan and Afghanistan on the issue of alleged infiltration of Taliban into Afghanistan from the country’s tribal areas and the consequent US air and grounds assaults in these regions.

At the press conference, President Zardari did not say much substantively and answered most of the pointed questions thrown at him with abstract explanations, particularly vis-à-vis potentially volatile issues like the restoration of the remaining judges and the removal of Article 58-2/b from the Constitution. But these are some of the thorny issues he will have to address soon to stabilize Pakistan’s politics, besides undertaking the gigantic task of reversing the growing threat of extremism and terrorism, and putting the deteriorating national economy back on a stead progressive course.

People’s Verdict

Fortunately, since the start of this year, Pakistan has seen three positive political developments. The first one was the victory of mainstream and representative political parties in the February 18 elections and the consequent formation of PPP-led coalition government. The second was the August 18 resignation of former President General (retd) Pervez Musharraf. The election of Pakistan People’s Party co-Chairman for the post of the President of Pakistan, the highest state position and presently the most powerful political post, is the third most pivotal political development in the country’s otherwise sordid political history.

Some may contest the perceived Machiavellian means Zardari has adopted to grab the Presidency on moral grounds. On similar grounds, others may continue to harp upon his perceived corrupt past. But the fact is that he has been elected with a thundering majority of votes in the Electoral College for the post of Presidency. That includes an almost unanimous support from three provincial assemblies of Sindh, Balochistan and the Frontier, a considerable backing for his presidency from the Punjab Assembly and a majority vote from both the National Assembly and the Senate.

Except his ex-major coalition partner, the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, Zardari was fully backed by all of his smaller coalition partners, the Awami National Party from the Frontier and Muttahida Qaumi Movement from Sindh, besides the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam of Maulana Fazalur Rahman with a support base in Balochistan and Frontier provinces.

The fact that after Zardari’s election as President, the PML-N leader along with other party stalwarts visited the PPP-P chief in the Prime Minister House and congratulated him on his election as President is an encouraging development, if the recent-time tradition of politics of confrontation that civilian leaders and parties are so used to is kept in mind.

Zardari and Sharif fell apart on the issue of judiciary, but now that the situation has qualitatively changed after Zardari taking over the Presidency. Therefore, the PML-N leadership cannot behave the same way as it did after the collapse of the Islamabad accord soon after Musharraf’s resignation. The same goes for Zardari. Being a head of the state, he has to be non-partisan and a figure of national stature always engaged in narrowing down political differences rather than widening the national political rift on any issue, current or future.

Bhutto’s Legacy

A President has to symbolize national unity and must enjoy the confidence of all the political forces of the Federation. And Zardari has beyond doubt emerged as a consensual national figure to lead the state of Pakistan. He has replaced a man who, after nearly nine years of misrule, epitomized nothing but national disunity and became a major source of security quagmire, economic downslide, political uncertainty and public depression.

This positive development, the transition from dictatorial to democratic leadership that Zardari’s election as President symbolizes, has occurred at a time when the country is faced with all sorts of unprecedented crises, ranging from the terrorist threat from extremists to an economic situation that has deteriorated seriously in recent months to an over all national environment marred by increasing political uncertainty and societal hopelessness.

Public cynicism about his controversial past aside, Zardari represents the same democratic legacy of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto which was carried forward in the decades after Mr. Bhutto’s ‘judicial murder’ by his lovely daughter Benazir Bhutto until she herself was killed by terrorists on December 27.

Benazir Bhutto’s martyrdom is a national tragedy of unimaginable proportions, and the damage it has done to the national polity can only be undone only if the liberal democratic legacy she and her father gave us is further consolidated. Otherwise, we cannot envision a short term relief from, or a long term resolution of, a host of security, economic, political and social challenges currently facing Pakistan.

The enormous sacrifices that the Bhuttos have rendered for the sake of Pakistan and in the process of realizing their dream of democracy, tolerance and liberty for this nation should not go waste. Benazir Bhutto was murdered moments after she addressed an election rally in Rawalpindi. She was preparing to be part of a democratic change in the country, an opportunity the terrorists within us denied her through their merciless, yet cowardly, act. The widely perceived notion that Benazir came back to the country as part of a deal may be true, but we must remember that the logical outcome of that deal was the very democratic transformation the country is witnessing today. The only difference is that she is not around to lead this process of change.

Combating Terrorism

Some may argue that Zardari’s takeover of the Presidency is the last leg in the realization of the same deal which had the American blessing: to create a united front of moderate political forces in Pakistan as an effective democratic and progressive hedge against the organized forces of religiously motivated extremism and terrorism.

But even if such a deal has had the American backing, what is wrong in having a consolidated liberal response to regressive challenges from extremist forces like al-Qaeda and their Taliban affiliates? At a time when the religious bigots through their extremist thinking and terrorist activity are threatening domestic peace in Pakistan and the very fabric of its state, maligning the country’s image in the region and across the world, would it not be a rational national choice on our part to be led or governed by forces who historically subscribe to a liberal and progressive ideology?

At present, Pakistan does have such a government and a leadership, the Peoples Party and its allies in the Centre, the ANP in the Frontier and the MQM in Sindh—all of them are ideologically liberal forces. The MQM did engage in acts of terrorism; for instance, in May last year, or in the months ahead or years before. But its support base is essentially constituted by those people who migrated from India at the time of Partition or afterwards. And they still carry with them the same pacifist religious creed that the people of the subcontinent have historically subscribed to.

The ANP represents Pashtun nationalists, who have a genuine stake in the reversal of the Taliban wave in the Frontier and tribal regions. This wave has damaged relative peace and tranquility in the Frontier and FATA more than any other region of the country, whereby in the case of tribal regions Mullah has effectively replaced the Malik. No doubt FATA, just like the rest of the country, is in dire need of democratic peace and economic progress. But this goal cannot be realized with rampant Talibanization in the region and the issue of cross-border Taliban infiltration and attacks in Afghanistan linked to this heinous process.

The ANP, being a liberal nationalist force, is the only political party that can make a difference in the Frontier province insofar as the process of reversing Talibanization and the question of preventing cross border Taliban infiltration and attacks in Afghanistan are concerned. With the People’s Party leading political governance at the Centre, and both the offices of the President and Prime Minister belonging to it, the current national political scene is quite conducive to vigorously combating terrorism in cooperation with the party’s liberal partners like ANP.

As for the recent hype in US assaults in tribal regions, this is no doubt a major problem impinging upon the country’s national sovereignty, and it has to be sorted out by President Zardari and the government led by his party stalwart Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. However, a proper modes operandi for the purpose would be to take the US and Afghan leadership as well as the NATO command in Afghanistan into confidence and exploring further possibilities of counter-terrorism cooperation within the trilateral Pak-Afghan-NATO/US framework, which indeed produced miraculous results in the initial years of the current Afghan war. The presence of Hamid Karzai in the oath-taking ceremony of President Zardari is an encouraging development in this regard.

Consolidating Democracy

One principal reason why Pakistan could not struggle against extremism and terrorism effectively was the lingering political instability and uncertainty in the country. With Zardari’s takeover of Presidency, we can expect political situation to relatively stabilize. This would mean the national leadership and the country’s government will have enough time and energy to attempt to counter extremism and terrorism with a mix of military and non-military means. The government has already talked about adopting a comprehensive approach for the purpose, including initiatives to democratize the tribal regions and develop them economically.

As far the developmental aspect of this comprehensive approach is concerned, the government of Pakistan will require due international financial assistance, just as that of Afghanistan has obtained through a number of international donor conferences. What we can hope now is that if the Democrats take over the White House, then the democratic transition that has already taken place in Pakistan will ideally match with the process of change in US foreign priorities under Democratic President. Even now, the Congress being under Democrats seems to be supportive of the democratic change in Pakistan and ready to assist the process in whatever way it can.

Consolidating democracy in Pakistan is not only important for reversing the wave of religiously inspired extremism and terrorism it is also a must for overcoming gory economic challenges. The country’s economy has never been so worse, and, again, one of the reasons for this negative trend—inclusive of issues like capital flight abroad and eroding external investment—has been the lingering political instability and uncertainty in the country.

The only way to guarantee stability and certainty in politics is to build more democracy on the gains of democracy we have already made. That would mean finding a via media, in consultation with the PML-N and representatives of the lawyers’ community, to resolve the issue of re-instating the remaining judges, including deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Of course, this issue is easier said than done.

But Zardari through his conduct, however immoral some may have perceived it, has proven that he is a pragmatic and mature person, who is apt at the art of the possible rather than engage in idealistic battles on a single issue and then find oneself in a blind ally, as Mr Sharif did. Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. No matter how complex an issue is, a leader should be flexibly enough to find all possible ways to resolve it. It is, therefore, extremely important to resolve the remainder of the judicial issue; otherwise, it will come back to scuttle democracy and generate political uncertainty once again.

The second issue that must be tackled forthwith for the sake of consolidating democracy so that the battle against extremism and terrorism can be fought more aggressively and economic problems can be solved on a war footing pertains to balancing the constitutional powers of the President and the Prime Minister.

Just to prolong his rule, General Musharraf had amassed arbitrary powers in the office of the President through 17th amendment in the Constitution, including the infamous Article 58 2/b. Zardari has declared more than once that it is the prerogative of the parliament to introduce any amendment in the Constitution, and that if the Parliament decided to do away with the arbitrary powers of the President, he would obey the parliamentary verdict. Obviously, with a prime minister from his party, why should Zardari keep powers which he may never need to use against a government led by a People’s Party stalwart?

Thus, President Zardari has effectively thrown the ball in the court of the Parliament. If the Parliament ever decided to get rid of Article 58-2/b, it would find a President facilitating such a political process to make Pakistan’s system truly parliamentary. We should at least be glad about the fact that we do not have a person in the Presidency, as Musharraf was, prepared to risk the country’s future for the sake of retaining his arbitrary position and prolonging his dictatorship.

Finally, there is this lingering broader political problem facing Pakistan pertaining to the civil-military relationship. Given the gigantic challenges facing the country, there is an urgent need to smoothen this relationship. With Zardari’s accession to the Presidency, there is a big plus insofar as the precarious nature of civil-military ties in the country’s history is concerned. In the 1990s, we witnessed a familiar pattern of pro-Establishment Presidents (including Farooq Leghari) destabilizing elected civilian leaders and governments. This is no more the case now. Not only are both the President and Prime Minister from the same party, but also the President happens to be the co-chairman of the ruling party.

More importantly, due to reckless and irresponsible policies of General (retd) Musharraf and because of the real-time security threat from extremists, the army, the traditional wielder of political power in Pakistan, seems to be least interested in interfering in political system and civilian domain. Also, if we consider the American factor as crucially important in the country’s internal politics, a White House led by Democratic leadership would hardly welcome any military interference in domestic politics in the years ahead.

Thus, the current tilting of balance in the country’s civil-military relationship in favour of the former is a golden opportunity for both the army and the civilian leadership. There are enough reasons for the army to go back permanently to the barracks and perform the professional job of ensuring an effective and credible national defense. Likewise, there are ample reasons for elected civilian democratic leaders to behave responsibly and prove, as President Zardari remarked so aptly at the press conference that they are really “larger than the problems” facing Pakistan.

Access column at weeklypulse.org