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Down To Mr One Per Cent

The people have spoken, even his PPP is fed up. The beginning of the end for Zardari?

Down To Mr One Per Cent
Down To Mr One Per Cent
Zardari's Possible Future

  • Plans are afoot to take away his powers to dismiss governments and dissolve a popular House. This would make him a ceremonial president.

  • The Supreme Court under the new Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry could squash the NRO and renew the corruption cases against him.

  • Old guard in PPP could unite to challenge his leadership.

  • Foreign powers, including the US, could shift support to Sharif.

  • But Zardari is scheming to stall Chaudhry's return to the Supreme Court and throw out Gilani.

  • Muster majority in Punjab, prevent Sharifs from forming government.

  • The nation is unlikely to accept such steps, could force him out.


Looking out the window of President's House on Constitutional Avenue, President Asif Ali Zardari must have thought he was under attack. Massive steel barriers blocked all roads leading to Constitutional Avenue, security personnel were out in full force, and not a body out of uniform was visible. This was the road where the hordes marching from Lahore and other cities were to converge on March 16, demanding the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, withdrawal of Governor's rule in Punjab, and removal of the ban on Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, from contesting elections. The countrywide uproar, though, was also a direct expression of the mounting anger against Zardari's dictatorial tendencies.

For, like all dictators, he believed he could crush a people's movement with the state's might. Elderly women like human rights activist Tahira Abdullah were dragged from their beds and thrown behind bars. Popular TV channels were taken off the air. But, in the end, to stem the rising tide of anger the government had to accept, on the morning of March 16, the demands of an agitated nation. As analyst Shireen Mazari, who's now the information secretary of Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, says, "We should now accept that our leadership may be suffering from a collective case of akrasia...which is a recognised psychological condition defined as 'the state of acting against one's better judgement'."

'Mr Justice' with supporters after his reinstatement on Mar 16

As if to mock Zardari's follies, thousands gathered in the compound of Chaudhry's residence, located in the vicinity of President's House. They cheered, danced and sang with the passion of the possessed, and were joined later in the week by others from different parts of the country. Rock stars sang Faiz Ahmed Faiz's verses, as also the poems that Aitizaz Ahsan, the legal luminary and the architect of the lawyers' movement, had penned specially for the Long March. "Mubarak ho, mubarak ho," shouted the fundamentalists to the liberals, both sections rejoicing at the imminent return of 'Mr Justice' to the Supreme Court.

Today, Pakistan's heroes, apart from Chaudhry, are Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and army chief Gen Pervez Kiyani. While Gilani sought to broker the truce, it was Kiyani's warning—that his soldiers wouldn't fire on the crowds—that compelled Zardari to agree to reinstating Chaudhry as chief justice. This was one demand Zardari wasn't willing to accept, fearing that Chaudhry would declare unconstitutional the National Reconciliation Order through which his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, had squashed all corruption cases against him.

Zardari now stands completely isolated. There wasn't a word of support from any foreign capital. Nor did he have the backing of the army or his own prime minister. Political analyst Nusrat Javeed told Outlook, "He's completely isolated from all state institutions because of his attempts to manipulate them. " Zardari's reckless and arrogant behaviour of the last one year could see him lose grip over even his own Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Leading journalist Zahid Hussain says that "during meetings at President's House, he called information minister Sherry Rehman witch, bitch and jadoogarni (sorceress)." He called Benazir Bhutto's close confidant and leader of the house in the Senate, Reza Rabbani, "khasi" or impotent.

Both Sherry and Rabbani have resigned from their posts, fanning speculation that the old guard of the PPP could join hands to wrest the party out of Zardari's control. Their task has been made easier because the PPP always saw him as an outsider. As Javeed argues, "The party has always been suspicious of him. He will always be the 'son-in-law' who can be tolerated and respected but will always remain the 'outsider'."

Benazir's sister Sanam has already fired the first salvo. In an interview, she said, "Even Bilawal...may have to...support his beloved aunt against his father's claims of material and political inheritance of his mother Benazir Bhutto." She's reportedly furious that Zardari has made his sisters heads of the trust floated for Benazir's three children. It's said that even Bilawal is upset over the sidelining of many of his mother's confidants. Could Sanam then become the rallying point for the disgruntled?

Plans are afoot to render Zardari a toothless tiger through an amendment abolishing Section 58(2)b of the Constitution that empowers the president to dismiss the federal government and dissolve the National Assembly. The threat of these powers theoretically allows a president to armtwist the prime minister into being his rubber stamp.

Others, though, feel Zardari is waiting to strike back. Says Shaheen Sehbai, group editor, The News, "Zardari will try to settle scores, specially with Gilani who he thinks stabbed him in the back, Nawaz Sharif and those in the PPP who ditched him at the last moment. I don't expect that he will show the grace to accept defeat with dignity and respect. He's now past the zenith, he can only go one way now, down...until he is out."

The man himself, however, continues to scheme. Zardari is planning an ordinance disallowing legislators from defying the party whip. With the PML(N)-PPP alliance breaking down in Punjab, the Sharifs hope to form a government there through the support of the 'forward block' or dissidents in the PML(Q) (called the King's Party during Musharraf's reign). To block the move, Zardari too is trying to muster an alliance with them. Meanwhile, lawyer Ahsan has publicly come out and alleged that Zardari wants to undo the gains of March 16. How? A private citizen would challenge the notification ordering Chaudhry's reinstatement. Current chief justice A.H. Dogar, a Zardari appointee, could then reject it, thus stalling the return of Mr Justice.

But such devious plots could boomerang. Sehbai says, "As president, he will have to accept a diminished role until he can kick up a new controversy to throw Gilani out. But the new Supreme Court (of Chaudhry) will always hang over his head as a sword. Remember, the nro is in the court. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few months Zardari declares that he is sick again and needs treatment in New York."

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