Mar 28, 2009 1
President Asif Ali Zardari gave his second address to parliament today. Again, it was in English, so a majority of Pakistanis had no idea what he was saying. Not a great idea since Zardari faces a credibility gap with most Pakistanis, many of whom see him as an American puppet.
Vis-a-vis the Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), Zardari made one concession and left many issues up for negotiation. Zardari is weakened, but will use the remaining leverage he has over the PML-N to ensure that he has an advantage over his chief rival.
Zardari pledged today that the Peoples Party (PPP) will join a PML(N)-led government in Punjab. It is positive that Zardari has faced reality, instead of fighting it and, as a result, destabilizing the entire system. After three months of courtship, the Chaudhries and Zardari failed tie the knot. This is a result of the internal divisions of the Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) and the growing strength of the PML-N in Punjab.
Zardari also added that governor’s rule over Punjab will be lifted, but did not specify the date. He vaguely reiterated a pledge to give up his power to dissolve parliament (known by the section of the constitution in which it’s addressed: Article 58(2)b. The issue will now go into the hands of a parliamentary committee, where there is plenty of opportunity for dilly-dallying. The committee will “propose amendments in the constitution in the light of Charter of Democracy.”
Keep in mind that the Charter of Democracy doesn’t just call for the end of Article 58(2)b. It also calls for giving the prime minister the power to appoint military service chiefs. This becomes key when Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani faces retirement at next year. Will Zardari give up that authority to Prime Minister Gilani? Not likely.
If Zardari consents to a neutered presidency, the rumor in Islamabad is that he will seek the office of prime minister. Constitutionally, an ex-president cannot seek elected office till two years after he leaves the presidency. Obviously, he cannot run for a National Assembly seat while serving as president. So Zardari would need a constitutional amendment to play this trick. He has a some leverage to negotiate an exchange with the Sharifs and other parties.
But once in the National Assembly, Zardari will be trapped. The National Assembly will become the ultimate dueling center — especially if former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is declared eligible for elections and runs for an NA seat (e.g. NA-52). Prime Minister Zardari would not have the same constitutional protection of President Zardari. A president can only be impeached or forced to resign; a prime minister can be removed by a vote of no confidence or (at the moment) be dismissed when the assemblies are dissolved. Zardari will not fare well if a situation in which he’s prime minister and Nawaz is opposition leader. Imagine Zardari having to face question time. The PPP co-chairman will have no place to hide and will be mauled by the so-called “Lion of Punjab.”
END NOTE: If there’s one issue I believe Zardari can deliver on, it’s Balochistan. He has an opportunity to quell the insurgency and meaningfully address Baloch grievences. There has been some progress, but — as the Solecki kidnapping demonstrates — Baloch youth are increasingly becoming radical (secularly). But Zardari has the respect of many Baloch leaders as he is an ethnic Baloch and a civilian politician. Furthermore, the PML-N seems like it will be a willing partner to address some core Baloch concerns such as provincial autonomy, the concurrent list, and army operations in the province.