Sunday, March 15, 2009
How Long Can President Zardari Survive?
The humiliating retreat by the deeply unpopular President of Pakistan, Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, on the question of restoring Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is reminiscent of a similar debacle by his equally unpopular predecessor, former President Musharraf, in 2007. Both leaders seriously miscalculated the public outrage against their actions. In addition to mass protests on the streets, both men had to face tremendous pressures by foreign powers, including Americans and Saudis, as well as strong private rebuke by the ultimate arbiters of power in Pakistani military. As the events unfold further, it seems that Mr. Zardari has been so badly weakened that he will be forced to resign in not too distant a future. Until that happens, Pakistan will continue to face significant instability and continuing and serious security threats from within and outside.
As the political turmoil reached alarming new heights in Pakistan over the last few days, Obama adviser Bruce Riedel said in a report, prepared in conjunction with the National Security Council (NSC), that he believed that unless serious action was taken, Pakistan would become a ‘terrorist university’, representing a far greater threat to the security of the US and Europe than Afghanistan did before 9/11.
“Recent apocalyptic intelligence on the situation in Pakistan has shocked the Obama administration and convinced Riedel’s review team that radicals trained in Pakistan are the greatest threat to western security,” the Daily Telegraph reported.
It said the Riedel review had reportedly concluded that seven out of 10 Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan were “reconcilable”, who could be bribed, cajoled and persuaded to turn away from extremism. This appears to be a vindication of Pakistan's policy of reconciliation with elements among the Taliban.
“The review, likely to be published within days, will recommend that non-military aid to Pakistan is quadrupled. Payments to Afghan tribal chiefs will also increase. In return, the Pakistani government will be expected to agree to a wholesale overhaul of its military which will see US special forces retrain Pakistani soldiers in counter-insurgency warfare,” The Telegraph added.
There is a great deal of urgency being felt in Washington to try and resolve political tensions in Pakistan without jeopardizing government support against the Taliban and Al Qaeda militancy. The U.S. faces a serious dilemma here. While the U.S. has found Zardari quite pliable in support of American policy in the region, a weakened Zardari and less than friendly Sharif and Kayani are seen as significant roadblocks by Washington. It will be interesting to see how Americans attempt to keep Zardari at the helm when he has become almost as unpopular as Musharraf was in his last few months in office.
In a December, 2008 poll conducted by the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), 88% of the respondents said Pakistan is moving in the wrong direction, while 73 per cent said the economic situation had worsened in the past year.
A total of 76 per cent rated the PPP-led government's performance on key issues as poor, up from 51 per cent in a survey conducted by IRI in June.
67 per cent replied in the negative when asked if things would be better now as there is a democratically elected Parliament and President in Pakistan.
While 59 per cent of Pakistanis surveyed said they would prefer Sharif as President, only 19 per cent backed Zardari for the job. 63 per cent also said they disapproved of Zardari's performance while only 19 per cent approved it.
So what does the future hold for Zardari? Since the IRI poll was taken before Zardari's unpopular actions in Punjab, it is very likely that his support has further eroded recently. With such low level of support, it is likely that he will face a revolt within his own party. Moving forward, there are two distinct possibilities that will further hurt Mr. Zardari's chances: (1) The Iftikhar Chaudhry court could repeal President Musharraf's NRO, the executive order granting amnesty to Zardari that would force him out as president and/or (2) the repeal of article 58(b) of the constitution by parliament that would turn the president into a powerless figurehead.
Thinking beyond the Zardari era, I see many Pakistanis, such as Professor Adil Najam of Boston University, hoping that a "new politics may emerge in Pakistan around the faces and frameworks of the lawyers movement and that it will remain true to its aspirations rather than succumbing to political temptations".
While I abhor the feudal politics of Pakistan and share the hope of new politics based on civility and rule of law, I do think that the lawyers movement and the case of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has been exploited by cynical politicians to achieve their own objectives of destroying their opponents. The violent and uncivil methods used by this movement are also highly questionable and unjustified in a democracy. What Pakistanis need more than anything now is a period of relative stability to allow economic and civic activity to resume so the poor and hungry can take care of themselves. Make no mistake about it, the lawyers’ fight for higher ideals is being fought at the expense of those who can least afford it. As long as there is serious economic deprivation and resulting violence in Pakistan, it will be extremely difficult to achieve true democratic ideals. Instead, we’ll be dealing with rising insurgency and expansion of “Swats” in Pakistan.
Justice Chaudry's Address to New York Bar
Has Lawyers Movement Gone Awry?
Lawless Lawyers of Lahore
Feudal Democracy in Pakistan