Zardari in the Crosshairs

My latest external publication is an article on ForeignPolicy.com that discusses the plight of President Asif Ali Zardari. An excerpt is at the end of this post.

I have been blogging less frequently in the past two months, but you can catch me regularly on the John Batchelor Show, Saturdays at 9:30PM EST (770AM-NY, WABCradio.com, and XM , XM Radio Channel 158).

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Here’s an excerpt of my FP article:

“Afghanistan’s election crisis has temporarily abated, but Pakistan could soon face a volatile political transition of its own. President Asif Ali Zardari is under ever-increasing pressure to resign. His influence and power are dwindling and will likely continue to diminish in the coming months. By this spring, the Zardari presidency could meet its end….”

Click here to read more

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No Title. Photo Says it All.


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Zardari Plays with Fire: Sharif Brothers Disqualified

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has ruled Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif ineligible for electoral participation.

As a result, Shahbaz Sharif is no longer chief minister of Punjab.  The court decision is effectively a coup by the Peoples Party-led center against the government of the largest province, Punjab.

Sharif legal and political associates state they do not recognize the authority of the Supreme Court, which is led by a judge appointed by former President Pervez Musharraf after he sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and declared emergency rule.

Fire has ceased in Swat, but the war in Punjab, and perhaps even Islamabad, begins.

Politically, the Sharifs and their faction of the Muslim League (PML-N) — Pakistan’s second largest party — are isolated. Their major allies are those outside of parliament: the lawyers, Jamaat-e Islami, and Tehreek-e Insaaf.

And Pakistan effectively has a national unity government — sans the PML-N.  The PPP-led coalition consists of the Awami National Party (ANP), Fazlur Rehman’s faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI-F), and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).  Despite Shahbaz’s last ditch attempts toward rapproachment with the MQM, neither it nor any of the other coalition members will abandon the PPP.  The ANP is focused on its government in the North-West Frontier Province.  The MQM is uninterested in joining the opposition.  And Fazlur Rehman and family are content with their Pajeros and farm houses.  The fractured and discredited Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) could also join the central government.  Shujaat Hussain, the head of the PML-Q, expressed his support for the court’s decision.

The PML-N is a few seats short of a majority in the Punjab Assembly.  The PPP is positioned to form a government with the PML-Q there.

Zardari is politically secure.  The Pakistani president has Musharraf-era constitutional powers (the hyperpresidency), a docile (though occassionally rebellious) prime minister, a healthy coalition in the center, a share in all provincial governments, a pliant Supreme Court, an army stuck in the barracks, and support of major Western governments.  An influx of foreign aid could bolster his hold on power.  Also, the PPP will likely be the largest party in the Senate after elections in March.  Zardari — if he makes the right deals — could get a constitutional amendment passed that would fall short of restoring the presidency to its original nominal status.  In short, Zardari could have his cake and eat it too.

However, there is a huge disparity between the Zardari’s political security and popular opinion toward him. Simply put, Zardari is hated inside Pakistan, particularly in Punjab. This has always been the case, except for the burst of sympathy after his wife’s murder.  Public goodwill toward Zardari dissipated by the following summer when he violated a series of popular agreements with Nawaz.  Subsequently, Zardari made a power grab and took the presidency.

Public opinion polls commissioned by the International Republican Institute indicate that Zardari — after a month as president — was as unpopular as Musharraf at his nadir.  But it took Musharraf eight years to reach that point.  Those polls also indicate Nawaz is Pakistan’s most popular politician.

So the big question are: How long can the contradictions between Zardari’s political strength and massive unpopularity last?  And can Pakistan achieve political stability with its second largest party shut out of the corridors of power?  We’ll get the first test in early March, when the PML-N and the lawyers go on their Long March.

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Signed Copy of Sharif-Zardari Agreement to Restore Judges

Ok, it’s not the Qur’an or Hadith, but it starts with God’s Name and ends with the signatures of Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif.

Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif agreement to restore judges as per Murree Accord.

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The Final Round: Musharraf Fights Against Nawaz and Himself

The writing is on the wall.  ‘The show is over,’ the graffiti reads.  Despite the statements from Rashid Qureshi and Pervaiz Elahi, I think Pervez Musharraf has read it.  Whether or not he is, in his view, able to come to terms with it is another issue.

Musharraf must have realized the nail had hit his coffin when Maulana Fazlur Rehman became a full-fledged supporter of impeachment.  The “maulana”, a misappellation if there ever was, is Pakistan’s political weather vane.  If I were a betting man, I’d follow his picks.

Fazlu knows who’s up and who’s down.  He’s the master of double speak.   He, like a magician, can be in two places at once (in government and the opposition).  And so, when Fazlu has decidedly ditched Musharraf, after loyally serving him in the opposition for five years, you know Pervez’s time is up.  The “maulana” has moved on to another man.  One of his deputies lashed out against Musharraf on a talk show Thursday; the display was quite shocking.

Fazlu didn’t show up for Musharraf’s 65th birthday party.  Some friends, like Salmaan Taseer, did come by — but only to tell him to resign.  Najam Sethi told him the same, but through the Wall Street Journal.  Abdullah Yusuf, freed from his bureaucratic duties, perhaps had his first show as a full time exotic dancer last night.

So what’s holding Musharraf back?  Two people: Nawaz and himself.

Musharraf recognizes that he’s got to go, but he wants to ensure that he won’t be prosecuted after resignation.  That’s the request he made to Shahbaz Sharif via their conduit, Brigadier (Retd.) Niaz Ahmad.  But, frankly put, Nawaz is being an ass about it, saying he’ll decide after Mush resigns.  It’s like saying, I’ll put my gun down after you put yours down, rather than at the same time.  Meanwhile, Tariq Aziz is said to have met Zardari, who supports Musharraf receiving indemnity.  Zardari demonstrated that clearly today in an interview with Hamid Mir.

So the cards seem to be in Nawaz Sharif’s hands and he is willing to let Musharraf dangle off the cliff a bit.  Hopefully he’ll let someone pull Musharraf up and usher him out of public life.    Perhaps Nawaz would like Musharraf to get a taste of Attock Jail, like he did.  But he would also be punishing Pakistan in the process.  If Nawaz chooses the more chivalrous path, he’ll be the better man and his nation will benefit.

Finally, the coming days will be a major test of Musharraf’s psychology. Immensely self-confident and brash, he takes on his opponents head on.  It’s a characteristic many Pakistanis have liked.  But in the end, it became far too destructive.  In recent years, Musharraf has rejected good counsel.  His decision making has become more abrtirary and less consultative.  He’s always been a risk taker.  But without the negating force of saner minds, you get his long string of utterly stupid decisions, like imposing emergency rule.

So there’s a chance Musharraf could ride against the storm or even pull a trick or two.  But based on the consensus that has emerged in Rawalpindi, Islamambad, and elsewhere, the tolerance for adventurism will be nil.

One hopes that saner minds will prevail.  Punishing Musharraf will do no good for Pakistan.  The punishers are as guilty as the punished.  The key is to orient all major actors toward good behavior.  Revenge will only perpetuate the cycle of destructiveness.

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The End of the Musharraf Era?

Pakistan’s governing coalition has announced that they will proceed immediately with moves to impeach Pervez Musharraf from the presidency.

People’s Party Co-Chairman Asif Zardari read out a joint statement in which he said that the National Assembly will be called on August 11 to begin impeachment proceedings.  He said the deposed judges will be restored as per the Murree Declaration after the impeachment.  But in a reply to a question, Zardari did not clarify as to whether the judges would be restored via an executive order or constitutional package.  He seemed to insinuate the latter.  The Muslim League – Nawaz will rejoin the cabinet.

Musharraf views the situation as serious.  He will not be attending the Beijing Olympics, announced Pakistan’s Foreign Office.  In his place will be Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani.

The response from the media, as well as the Pakistani public, is skeptical and rightfully so.  The two major party heads, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, have gone to the brink many times and only to press the ‘reset’ button when mutual and public confidence dwindle.

There are a few reasons to be optimistic.  One, there was a joint press conference and Zardari read the statement.  In other words, Zardari and the PPP are ‘owning’ the statement.  Two, the PPP’s negotiating team consisted of its membership, Raza Rabbani and Sherry Rehman, who have been more representative of the February 18th mandate.  Rabbani, in particular, has been stridently anti-Musharraf and pro-judiciary.  At the same time, he has not antagonized Asif Zardari.

Though the declaration was clear, many questions remain:

  • Will the governing coalition follow through on its promises?  All of them or just some?
  • Has there been a compromise on the judges issue?
  • Do they have enough votes to impeach?
  • How long will the process take?
  • Impeachment is akin to a trial.  What will Musharraf be charged with?
  • Will Musharraf resign before or during the impeachment proceedings?  Or will he fight?  What weapons will he use?  Article 58(2)B?  The stock market and currency pressure?  He’s met with his political allies and legal advisers, including Sharifuddin Pirzada.
  • Is the Army willing to let go of Musharraf?  The Corps Commanders met this morning.
  • Have Washington, Riyadh, and Beijing given their consent?
  • Will the ANP and JUI-F, as Sheikh Rashid says, complicate things by tacking on their respective primary concerns?
  • What will happen if the impeachment proceedings go through, but enough votes are not secured?  Will the judges still be restored?  Will the PML-N still rejoin the cabinet?
  • Will there be dissenters from the PPP and PML-N?  Amin Fahim met with the PML-Q’s Hamid Nasir Chatta yesterday.  In a TV interview, Fahim defended the president and repeated Musharraf’s mantra of “Pakistan first.”  Though he could be a paper tiger, it appears that if the pro-impeachment camp has the numbers to impeach, it will be by a thin margin.  Every vote from the governing coalition matters.

It’s all unclear.  But there is a decent chance that by August 14th, Pakistan’s independence day, Pakistanis might become free of Pervez Musharraf.

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The PML-N Advances in the Battle for Punjab

The Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) made major gains in today’s by-elections.  It won ten additional seats in the Punjab Provincial Assembly.

Two belong to Shahbaz Sharif.  He’ll have to give up one of them; the results of both could even be nullified.

Still, the PML-N is now better placed to control Punjab without the support of the People’s Party (PPP).  All it needs is to gain close to a dozen defectors from the Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q).  PML-Q forward bloc members in the Punjab Assembly have displayed a greater propensity to side with the PML-N than their equivalents in the National Assembly, who have merely distanced themselves from the Chaudhries of Gujrat and the convenient fall guy, Shaukat Aziz.

The first shot of a war between the PML-N and PPP could very well be fired in Punjab, control of which is of immense importance to both parties.

It could have very well have been fired with the appointment of Salmaan Taseer, who serves as the PPP and Musharraf’s check on the PML-N.  Earlier this year, Zardari said he would move to Lahore.  This never materialized, much like the Murree Accord’s promises.  But it signaled his intent to re-build the PPP in Punjab.  This month, Taseer announced that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari would tour the province this summer.  The teenager–in effect, a socialist-feudal sajjda nashin–would be gracefully politicized and beatified (in life) through a soft induction in the Seraiki belt.

In short, the battle for Punjab is, in many senses, the battle for Pakistan.  The PPP needs to consolidate its position in southern Punjab and push up north.  The PML-N dominates urban centers in the province’s north and center, but could use some expansion southward.  The party could become overly insular in Punjab; it would be wise to use its increasingly comfortable position in Punjab as an opportunity to expand into Pakistan’s other provinces.  And that requires not only reaching out to non-Punjabis through national issues (sovereignty, peace, and the rule of law), but also through appreciating their provincial concerns — particularly in respect to provincial autonomy and resource sharing.

Nawaz Sharif’s chief ministership of Punjab during Benazir Bhutto’s first term as prime minister paved the way for his first stint as PM.  Shahbaz Sharif’s objective is to run Punjab well and help that serve as one source of leverage catapulting the PML-N to power nationally.  The PML-N’s gains in Punjab have put it forward on that path.  But if it, like the PML-Q, embraces ethnic chauvinism (in this case, Punjabi), it will win Punjab and lose Pakistan.  That, in reality, is a loss for everyone as it will push Pakistan further along the path of fragmentation.

At a broader level, Pakistan’s socio-political stability is dependent on the PPP and PML(N) partnering on core issues yet at the same time competing against one another not only in Punjab, but also elsewhere in the country — from Khyber to Karachi, Balochistan to Bahawalpur.

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Shaukat Aziz Gets Something Right

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has become the scapegoat for the country’s present economic challenges.  Much of the blame is well-deserved, though many of his former allies have put a disproportionate amount of responsibility on him to save themselves.

However flawed or failed his economic policies, Aziz manages to get some things right in an interview with Dawn.  He notes that the the PML-Q was a party of opportunists.  He also predicts Nawaz Sharf fully parting ways with Asif Zardari, resulting in new elections that the PML-N will sweep.  This, he says, will produce a two-party system with the PML-N governing and the PPP in the opposition.

Aziz’s prediction, I believe, is incisive and has a high likelihood of realization.

The PPP is generally assumed to be Pakistan’s largest political party.  But few recall that the PML-N won a majority of National Assembly seats in the last elections before Musharraf’s coup. Nawaz’s renewal (through his mix of nationalistic, anti-Musharraf, and pro-judiciary stances) combined with the Zardarization of the PPP (which mitigates the Bhutto factor) could bring his party back to such levels.

In recent days, the possibility of rapprochement with the PML-Q (or at least the Chaudhries of Gujrat) has increased.  There have been rumors of a Nawaz-Shujaat meeting in London this weekend.  Patching things up with the Chaudhries could work both ways.  It could tar the Sharifs, but also consolidate the Muslim League factions (excluding Pir Pagaro’s peculiar branch) and shore up the position of the PML-N (or by then, the PML) in Punjab, and–by virtue of that province’s size–nationally.

The question then would be: Will the PML-N revert to simply being the product of an anti-PPP vote bank (which many Pakistani analysts argue has been a determining factor in elections since the PPP’s emergence)?  Alternatively, will the PML-N continue on its present course, as a party that largely stands for something?

At the moment, things are unclear.  But what is and has always been obvious is that Pakistan would be better served with a substantive political discourse as well as its two major parties having a national reach.  The latter can be said for the PPP, to some degree, but the PML-N has had difficulty expanding beyond Punjab and the NWFP’s Hindko belt.  Both the PML-N and PML-Q have come out on the same side on the Kalabagh Dam issue–one that is seen by name as being another case of ‘Punjab vs. the rest’.  The PML-N will lose an opportunity to project its influence beyond Punjab if it does not use that project’s failure as an opportunity to lead a national discourse on inter-provincial relations, particularly over natural resources.  It can still win nationally by sweeping Punjab, but that would put Pakistan further on the path of Balkanization, make governance difficult, radicalize alienated groups, and produce a subsequent government led by the PPP including parties from the smaller provinces.

Pakistan then would be reliving the 1990s and the deleterious politics of antagonism.

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Prime Minister Zardari?

In March, the Pakistan government dropped its last court case against Asif Zardari. Tomorrow, a Supreme Court panel will review the Pervez Musharraf-initiated law requiring elected officials to have a bachelor’s degree. They are expected to rule it unconstitutional.

Zardari, who likely does not have a bachelor’s degree, will be the greatest beneficiary of such a ruling. All legal roadblocks to his parliamentary return will soon be gone, paving his way for a run in June’s by-elections. If elected to the parliament, Zardari could replace Yousaf Raza Gillani as prime minister.  Zardari has till Monday to submit his nomination papers for the National Assembly elections, so we’ll be saved from a prolonged discussion of: “Will he run or not?”

Meanwhile, there’s no indication the government has made any accommodations for the Sharif brothers, who are presently banned from elected office due to previous convictions. But they will submit their forms anyway. By next week, we’ll see what Zardari’s political plans are and whether the Sharifs have come to an understanding with Musharraf and/or “the establishment.”

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Sharifs’ Eligibility in June By-Elections Uncertain

Pakistan’s election commission announced the schedule for by-elections for the national and provincial assemblies. The polls will be held on June 3rd.

Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif are expected to run, respectively, for a seat in the national and Punjab provincial assembly. They registered for the 2007-8 elections, but their papers were rejected due to previous convictions.

With the same courts, election commission, and legal barriers in place, one can expect an identical decision this time. Yet, their electoral rejection would seem to say that the ‘new republic’ differs little from the ‘ancien regime’. It would also complicate ties between the PPP and PML-N.

Will the Sharifs have to make some compromises in order to return to elected office? Will they have to accept the minus one formula (which restores all judges except Iftikhar Chaudhry), provide Asif Zardari assurances that the National Reconciliation Ordinance will go unmolested, or agree to keep a somewhat defanged Musharraf in power?

It’s not clear. But it is reasonable to assume that such matters have already been discussed, though not necessarily finalized, in talks between the PML-N and PPP. Still, time is running out for the Sharifs. The election commission will accept nomination papers from tomorrow till April 21. The papers will be scrutinized from April 22-28. Appeals will be accepted till May 2. Final decisions will be announced on May 9.

Expect to see some rumbling over this next week.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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