By Shuja Nawaz
If the current political math holds, Asif Ali Zardari, the co-Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples' Party appears to be a shoo-in to succeed General Pervez Musharraf as the next regular President of Pakistan on September 6. But he will not have much time to exult. Pakistan today is facing an existential threat from Islamist militants in its Western half; its economy is reeling from the depredations of runaway inflation, food and power shortages, capital flight, falling foreign exchange reserves, and a political system riven by discord. The improbable coalition with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (N) has fallen apart. With the object of their attacks (Musharraf) no longer around, it seems nothing more was holding them together.
But the prize of the presidency will not be the end of the road to political redemption for Zardari and his party. He faces huge hurdles before he can proclaim victory and enjoy its fruits. In the run-up to the presidential elections, Zardari's opponents raised anew all the charges of graft, cronyism, and misgovernment that had dogged his earlier political career. The apparent coup de grace was a report in The Financial Times that cited his serious mental problems, including depression and dementia; his lawyers produced this report as evidence in a British court to excuse his failure to appear in one of the cases against him. For a man who may shortly be rising to head the National Command Authority of Pakistan, the master of the country's nuclear arsenal, and who may inherit the vast presidential powers that Musharraf had accumulated, any hint of mental instability would be a serious drawback. No one seems to have focused on the fact that the medical report by American doctors represents one of the sorrier aspects of U.S. legal proceedings, whereby "expert medical witnesses" can be hired for princely sums to offer exactly opposite views on the same subject in any court of law.
Assuming Zardari sweeps into the presidency, he will face another uphill task. He has little or no direct institutional or management experience. His political management style is not dissimilar from other political leaders in Pakistan: highly personalized and based on oral briefings and rapid-fire decision making. Some have described it as government by cell phone, referring to the two mobile phones that he carries in each pocket of his jacket and that ring non-stop, as he snaps orders to his party minions. Will he devolve responsibilities, as he should, or will he try to run the government and the country from the presidency, as Musharraf did?
He will also need to battle history. Most civilian successors of autocratic or dictatorial regimes in Pakistan have found it hard to divest themselves of the concentrated powers of the preceding dictators. They became civilian dictators. Zardari's biggest test will be whether he lives up to his pre-election promises to the country to rid the country of the 17th Amendment that gave Musharraf sweeping powers. Doing this would restore Pakistan to parliamentary democracy and make the Prime Minister the supreme executive, with the president as a symbolic head of state. Zardari's sycophants will clamor against any such move. It will be tempting to accede to their wishes. But he must remember that any accumulation of unfettered power in the past, even by Nawaz Sharif, created equal and opposite forces within the country. The results were never pretty. Gravitas, not hubris should be the key word of the day. Moreover, Pakistan today has a range of countervailing forces at work: the powerful army, as always; a rising news media; an energized civil society, epitomized by the lawyers' movement that led to Musharraf's departure; and the market forces of the globalized economy that will make Pakistan pay severely for political turmoil and instability. Dictatorship, whether civil or military, has no place in Pakistan today.
Zardari must also pay attention to other realities. The army still remains a key player in Pakistan. While the return of civilian supremacy is a devout wish of the people of Pakistan, any government that attempts to make changes in the civil-military relationship by fiat and with contumely rather than consultation with the army risks a confrontation with unhappy results. The recent ill-conceived notification about the placing of the Inter Services Intelligence agency under the Advisor to the Ministry of the Interior brought back memories of Prime Minister Bhutto's ill-fated and abortive attempt to remove the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff by notification in 1989. President Zardari would do well to take the time to read some of the recent history of civil-military relations in his country. President Musharraf apparently did not.
Another key lesson from the Musharraf presidency relates to the political deal-making with the Islamic parties by which their votes were bought in return for concessions. Musharraf's deal with the Islamic parties allowed them to acquire undue power in parliament and ushered in militancy, even in the heart of Islamabad. Today, the PPP seems to have made arrangements with the Islamic and regional parties to garner support for the presidential elections. If in return, Zardari halts the increasingly successful military operations against the militants, there will be a serious loss of momentum in the effort to control the Taliban and other extremist elements in Pakistan. A pause in the military pressure will give them time to regroup and recover their strength. He must rescind rapidly the so-called Ramadan cease fire. Otherwise the army and the country will pay dearly for this move.
The challenge for Pakistan's next president will be to restore the country back to political stability. The best way forward would be for him to take on a role as neutral non-partisan and uniting figure rather than a party-oriented activist. As a clean, statesmanlike, and deliberative head of state, he could bring Pakistan back from the abyss of economic and political tumult and chaos. Is "President" Zardari ready for that challenge?
Shuja Nawaz is the author of the recently released Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press, 2008). He can be reached at www.shujanawaz.com
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