“Every day I passed by the hangman’s noose. Prisoners are jailed and hanged. But they are hanged not by the state but after due legal process. It is the law that sends you to the gallows. I was sent to jail by the state. I survived the eight years, plus 28 months (between 1990 and 1993), under the Nawaz Sharif government in jail by following the example of my father-in-law Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who preferred the gallows than acquiesce to a military strongman’s worldview,” said Asif Ali Zardari to Outlook in December 2004, when he was finally set free by the Musharraf regime.
Today, nine years later, Zardari’s democratically elected government, led by his Pakistan People’s Party, has accomplished two historic firsts for Pakistan—it’s the first elected government to complete its five-year term. More importantly for some, it’s also the first one not to have had a single opposition figure imprisoned. “This is his greatest achievement. He raised the bar of tolerance and reconciliation to heights that will be difficult for others to scale,” presidential spokesman senator Farhatullah Babar tells Outlook.
After his marriage to Benazir Bhutto, Zardari spent most his life either in the PM’s house or in jail. It was only after her assassination in December 2007 that he returned to Pakistan from self-exile, won the January 2008 polls and moved to the president’s palace. Today, no one dismisses the chances of another term for the former ‘Mr Ten Per Cent’ and the PPP in the recently announced May 11 general elections.
That Zardari has enough political acumen to survive and deliver in a fiendishly hostile domestic milieu, while negotiating the geopolitical minefield of AfPak, is undeniable. Even Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir could never tame the opposition, fight and win court battles, and keep partners under leash and the military establishment at an arm’s length.
“One noticeable difference between president Zardari and shaheed Benazir Bhutto is in their respective thresholds of tolerance. Zardari’s capacity to endure is matched only by his capacity to beat the adversary in his own game. Even as chief executive, shaheed Bibi at times appeared powerless. Strangely, by redistributing state power, Zardari, himself bereft of constitutional powers, wielded power that eluded many,” says Babar, who was Benazir’s closest aide for decades.
Also, it is a different Pakistan now. “Zardari’s policies led, for the first time, to diffusion of state power and emergence of multiple power centres. Today, as never before, state power is diffused between parliament, executive, judiciary and the media...no one institution can claim monopoly over it,” says Babar.
The intimidatory pressure of the judiciary and the military on the civilian government over the past years is now a matter of record. But a persevering Zardari has refused to cave in. Zardari has withstood pressure from the Supreme Court on the issue of the opening of graft cases against him by Swiss authorities—which cost his aide Yousuf Raza Gilani his premiership.
He also showed admirable confidence in democratic rule in the manner he relinquished significant power—through which the president could dissolve the National Assembly and throw out an elected government—and passed the eighteenth amendment to the constitution that nullified a law shaped over decades by Pakistan’s military rulers.
Nearly ten years ago, Zardari realised that the establishment thought it wise to keep the cause (fundamentalism) alive for the sake of the cure (the military). “It is not the army but the generals who have persecuted the PPP. There’s a chance of a working relationship as they have run out of choices. Either they work with us and the people or their institution is in danger....” he had said.
Those words still have relevance, as the military continues its relations with Punjabi jehadis and distinguishes between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jehadis.
Meanwhile, the military has been stewing in its own juices—combating militancy in Pakistani cities and insurgency in Balochistan, fighting off attacks on its assets by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Punjabi jehadis, embarrassed by the discovery of Osama bin Laden in its backyard, and flushing out militants who had taken over towns and cities in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa.
But perhaps it was Zardari’s vision in foreign policy that will be remembered in the long term. He is possibly the only Pakistani president who has not made an official visit to Washington, as he preferred instead to invest his energies in improving bilateral relations in the region. “He choreographed moves which will have far-reaching impact on regional peace and stability. These include trade with India, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, handing over the Gwadar project to China...and other deft moves that may not be mentioned publicly now,” adds Babar.
However, even by Pakistani standards, these past years have been among the worst endured by the man on the street. Bad governance, endemic corruption, acute energy shortage, terrorism, radicalisation, failure to protect minorities and Shias, and a tottering economy has made life unbearable. The Pakistan military has effectively been at war, and the charge of not touring areas where soldiers were losing their lives daily in battle against the Taliban sheds a poor light on the supreme commander.
Political analyst Nusrat Javeed says Zardari has had to focus so heavily on tactical manoeuvres for political survival that it deprived him of a long-term plan. “At the end of the day, the PPP under him has nothing to show. Democracy is not about just surviving five years, but about something to flaunt during elections. He has failed to create a team at this crucial time,” says Javeed.
But given a kickstart by Zardari, future governments in Islamabad can expect this—there will be democratic continuity, with the military secure in the knowledge that they can continue to tweak foreign and security policies. Also, General Kayani finishes his extended tenure this year, and no political leader is in a mood to give him further extension. In 2013, Islamabad might have a new prime minister, president and army chief.
“The hopes and fears of leaders is a fascinating and instructive study...those who tend to concentrate powers will find it very hard to accept and adjust to the reality of multiple power centres in Pakistan,” says Babar.
In hindsight, Zardari was remarkably clear-sighted about the nature of democracy, and his hopes for it in Pakistan. In 2004, he had told Outlook: “When we introduced the fax system and CNN was allowed to be aired, I remember how angry you were with Benazir. She was hesitant.... You as a journalist knew the impact of technology. Because of this, the establishment will never be able to hide itself again. All that we need as democrats is perseverance and time.”