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Sherry Rehman Resigns from the Cabinet

Federal Minister of Information Sherry Rehman has resigned from the cabinet.  The dramatic move comes after President Asif Ali Zardari decided to block the transmission of GEO News and make it difficult for Pakistanis to view other channels, such as Aaj Television.

Through resigning Rehman regains some of the legitimacy she has lost during her service under the increasingly autocratic Zardari-dominated government.  As information minister, Rehman had to put herself before the firing line and defend Zardari’s indefensible behavior with verbal gymnastics. The humiliation has been mounting.  In late February, Zahid Hussain reported in the Wall Street Journal that Zardari called a senior minister a “witch” in a recent meeting.  The consensus is that Rehman is the unnamed minister.

Prior to joining politics, Rehman was an accomplished journalist.  She was editor of the Herald, a respected Karachi-based monthly.

The announcement of Rehman’s resignation brought to end a volatile day in Pakistani politics.  In the afternoon, reports of a virtually finalized deal between the PPP and PML-N — ‘guaranteed’ by Washington and Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani — emerged.  Over the next few hours, denial came from all sides.  And then during the evening, GEO News’ broadcasts in much of the country were shut off at the order of President Zardari.

It is unclear where anyone stands in this complex political battle.  Are Zardari and Gilani playing a good cop/bad cop game?  Or is Zardari the lone man out?  Is this his last stand?  Is he trying to go out with guns blazing?  Will Bilawal be getting a new roommate?  Or is Kayani in on it too?  If not, will the danda strike within 24 hrs?

I am expecting even bigger news — possibly another, far far more significant resignation — within the next 24 hours.  But today’s events demonstrate the futility of predictions involving such volatile characters.  Over the past two weeks, the PPP and PML-N have been trying to make things harder for the other by releasing false leaks through anonymous quotes and planting stories in newspapers.  The game has been dirty.

So, fasten your seat belts, Pakistan.  You’re on the Zardari Express.  And I think it’s about to crash.

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Filling in the Blanks: Nat_____ Recon_________

Let’s Continue Our Conversation…in London
Shahbaz Sharif, president of the Muslim League-Nawaz, tells BBC Urdu that “If Musharraf becomes neutral and promises to hold the polls in a free and fair manner, talks can be held with him.” This is a major break with precedent. Previously the Sharif brothers have publicly ruled out any compromise with Musharraf.

It’s unclear whether Shahbaz’s statement has his brother’s endorsement, though this is highly likely. It could be that Shahbaz is playing good cop, while Nawaz plays bad cop. Additionally, Shahbaz is seen as more conciliatory than his older brother, which would provide Nawaz with some cover (i.e. creating the impression that his brother talked him down from the ledge). A less likely alternative is that Musharraf could be successfully playing one Sharif brother off of the other by offering Shahbaz, not Nawaz, a major position in the national unity government (perhaps prime minister).

Shahbaz has extended his stay in London, where he’ll meet with retired Brigadier Niaz Ahmed (they met in Islamabad over a week ago) and could meet with Pervez Musharraf, who has begun a four nation tour of Europe.

Musharraf will eventually make his way to London, but there are no meetings with government officials slated. Gordon Brown is currently in India, where he called for New Delhi’s addition to the UN Security Council. Musharraf could be avoiding Brown’s snub of Pakistan, but his trip is also designed to temper European opposition. Musharraf will also meet Niaz Ahmed. Prior to leaving Pakistan, Musharraf met with the emir of Abu Dhabi on Saturday. The emirate played host to a Bhutto-Musharraf meeting in July.

Zardari and Malik Qayyum Meet in Dubai
National reconciliation talks must, apparently, occur outside of Pakistan, and so Attorney General Malik Qayyum met with Asif Ali Zardari in Dubai on Saturday. Both left Pakistan in a curiously furtive fashion. The PPP has publicly remained open to dealing with Musharraf after the elections and strongly resist the idea of a national reconciliation government prior to the elections, as they’d delay the polls.

It’s a positive development if Musharraf is negotiating with both the Sharifs and Zardari in earnest. If he’s playing them off of each other, then Musharraf is playing with fire.

Opposition Tours the U.S.
Several opposition figures are on a tour of the United States. Sherry Rehman and Javaid Laghari, both of the People’s Party, will be speaking at the Brookings Institution tomorrow. Imran Khan will be on a multi-city tour, speaking at organizations such as Amnesty International and CSIS and in Pakistani community events, which seem to be fund raisers for his Tehreek-e Insaaf Party.

Fazlur Rahman: Saudi Challo
Maulana Fazlur Rahman was noticeably absent from the public since the news reporting serious threats against him. And he’s done what he seems to do often in challenging moments, go to Saudi Arabia.

Geo Back
Earlier last week, Talat Hussain returned to AAJ television to host his weeknightly public affairs program. In his first show back on air, Talat said he’s back with no strings attached. But it seems as if the show (Live with Talat) is now taped, not live (in accordance with the new media control rules). There is also little mention of the judiciary issue. Nonetheless, the show remains engaging and informative.

GEO News also returned to the air waves today sans their most popular political talk show hosts, Hamid Mir and Shahid Masood. Kashif Abbasi, another prominent television journalist, remains off of ARY One World.

Back to the Barracks
Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has recalled a number of active military officers from cushy positions within the civilian bureaucracy. This follows his earlier move barring senior officers from meeting with politicians.

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After Bhutto: Who Will Lead the Pakistan People’s Party?

The murder of Benazir Bhutto has created a leadership vacuum within the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The populist, center-left party gained patrimonial colors after the execution of its founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in 1979.

Party leadership passed on to his wife, Nusrat. However, their daughter, Benazir, would soon rise to center stage, eclipsing–quite aggressively–her mother and brothers. Benazir was effectively at the party’s helm for the past two and a half decades, becoming at some point its chairperson for life. The party has no internal elections and Bhutto’s competitors were shut out.

Filling her shoes will be no easy task. Not only did Bhutto wield an almost absolute command over the People’s Party, but her persona–very much tied to her father’s–made many willing, if not desiring, to accept her complete stewardship.

To top it off, Bhutto has been lionized since her passing. News anchors on Pakistan’s private channels now refer to her as Shaheed Benazir Bhutto; she is now a martyr. Within hours of her passing, the news channels ceased to use the word ‘death’ and instead term her passing as shahadat, or martyrdom.

No potential successor shares the unique set of characteristics as Bhutto: the ‘royal’ name; popular appeal in Pakistan; political instinct; and deep contacts and friendships with leaders and influencers in the West. Most likely, Bhutto’s void will be filled by multiple individuals. The probable candidates are listed below in order of importance.

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Amin Fahim
As the vice chairman of the PPP, Amin Fahim is best positioned to assume leadership of the party. Fahim led the party in the National Assembly and was its presidential candidate in the faux polls held in October.

He is a feudal figure from Bhutto’s home province and political base of Sindh. Fahim has considerable name recognition nationally, but does not have the Bhutto name and the star power associated with it. His international connections are not strong, so he lacks Bhutto’s capacity to leverage an extensive network of foreign friends and supporters in order to challenge the U.S.-backed Musharraf.

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Asif Zardari
Most eyes are naturally focusing on Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower and closest adult relative with a political background. But Zardari is not a Bhutto; he did not marry “into” the family. His influence comes from two sources: one, like Bhutto and Fahim, he comes from an influential Sindhi feudal family; two, he was married to the daughter of Pakistan’s most popular politician post-Jinnah.

But Zardari is not viewed as the inheritor of the Bhutto mantle. And so it is highly likely that his political status will recede with the murder of his wife.

Zardari is a stained political figure. The PPP has, in recent years, sought to distance itself from him, who garnered the moniker “Mr. 10 Percent” as a result of his prolific corruption.

At best, he will play the role of a figurehead in a post-Bhutto PPP. Not only is Zardari hampered by negative perceptions and the lack of a claim to the Bhutto name, he is also in poor physical health. And it’s also unclear as to whether he is emotionally prepared to play politics; Zardari has been extremely distraught in multiple appearances on national television since yesterday. He also has three teenage children to raise.

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Aitzaz Ahsan
As a leading figure in the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan’s popularity–particularly with the middle and upper-middle class–has risen considerably this year. As a result, his relations with Benazir Bhutto cooled considerably; she was not happy, to say the least, with his commitment to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the judiciary’s cause.

Ahsan withdrew his nomination papers from the January elections; it’s unclear as to whether he had Bhutto’s endorsement, though it’s likely it was done against her will. His commitment to the judicial cause, while earning Bhutto’s anger, also gained points with the Pakistani public. Ahsan is seen as one of the few viable politicians who refused to consent to Musharraf’s subversion of the constitution. And so he can serve as a vehicle for restoring the public trust in the People’s Party as a popular, democratic front.

Unlike Bhutto, Ahsan is Punjabi, not Sindhi and so it’s difficult to see him alone holding up Bhutto’s popular base in Sindh. He could, to some extent, help propel the People’s Party in Punjab, but that would put the party on a more agitational course with not only the PML-Q, but also the PML-N — and it’s unclear as to whether the party wants to tussle with the latter.

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Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
As Benazir Bhutto’s eldest child, Bilawal’s entry into politics would precede that of his younger sisters (aged 16 and 14 respectively), if he choses to enter this dangerous field. But he’s only 19 and barely speaks Urdu. Bilawal just began his studies at Oxford, after living in Dubai for eight years–almost half his life. While Benazir spent her adolescence and early adulthood as her father’s political apprentice–even accompanying him to the Simla negotiations with Indira Gandhi–Bilawal has had no similar training. Bilawal’s political career will begin, if ever, gradually and in a highly managed fashion

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Farhatullah Babar
A long-time Bhutto loyalist and spokesperson, Babar will continue in his media relations capacity and providing counsel to the remainder of the party’s senior brass. He did not register for the January national and provincial elections and resigned from the Senate in 2006. If he returns to electoral politics, it’s more likely he’ll re-enter that body.

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Shah Mehmood Qureshi
As head of the PPP in Punjab, Qureshi will continue to shape the party’s operations in the country’s largest province. A feudal and Cambridge graduate, he frequently comes on political talk shows on behalf of the party. Qureshi could increasingly become a power broker at the national level.

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Sherry Rehman
A graduate of Smith College, Sherry Rehman came from a similar cultural and ideological background as Benazir Bhutto. While she can help continue the party’s media campaign in both Pakistan and the West, odds are she will do little more.

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Fatima Bhutto
A 25-year old Columbia graduate and daughter of Benazir’s slain brother, Fatima is perhaps the ultimate wild card in the post-Benazir PPP. Relations between she and her aunt were immensely hostile. Fatima accused Benazir of being behind the assassination of her father, Murtaza Bhutto–one of Benazir’s younger brothers. Fatima has been an active columnist and civil society advocate in Karachi. She has the name, the brain, and the brawns to play politics. In a potential step toward rapproachment with other Bhuttos and the Zardaris, she and her Lebanese stepmother, Ghinwa Bhutto–who runs her own PPP faction–attended Benazir’s funeral. That’s, however, a long way from mending ties with her late aunt’s inner circle. Though Fatima has been reluctant to assume any status seen as hereditary, she could come to see some utility in national politics. Will she and her stepmother rejoin Benazir’s PPP, or will they continue to remain separate, and even push for defections toward their camp? It’s all very much in the air.

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Other Influentials: Raza Gilani; Jehangir Bader; Raza Rabbani; Babar Awan; Qaim Ali Shah; Enver Baig

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Editor:

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

For Media and Consulting Inquiries:
E-mail // Tel: +1(202) 713-5897

On Twitter:
@PakistanPolicy

On the Radio:
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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