Zardari’s unenviable presidency —-By Najam Sethi

The government of President Asif Zardari (we don’t say Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani advisedly) is dogged by a number of issues. The lawyers’ movement seems to have got a new lease of life after the election of the fiery Ali Ahmed Kurd as the new president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. In fact, Mr Kurd’s sweeping election testifies as much to the continuing wellspring of support in the lawyers’ community for the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, as to the sheer incompetence and mismanagement of the PPP’s attorney general, Latif Khosa, and law minister, Farooq Naiq. Both gentlemen did not realize the critical significance of the SCBA elections and did not throw everything into the battle. Meanwhile Mr Chaudhry is winning hearts and minds abroad and is returning home after having recharged his batteries. This is not a prospect that Mr Zardari can relish. Indeed, after the recent revelations of unsavoury string pulling attached to the case of the daughter of the current chief justice, Mr Hameed Dogar, being upgraded so that she can qualify to enter a medical college, we may expect the moral authority of the Supreme Court to be further diminished in the eyes of the public. This will make it difficult for the executive to bend the judiciary’s will to the political need of the times – in particular the disqualification cases that are hanging over the heads of the two Sharif brothers in the supreme court which are meant to deter them from gobbling up the PMLQ and destablising the federal government. Therefore, if President Zardari was toying with the idea of extending Justice Dogar’s term via a constitutional amendment with the help of his current coalition partners as well as the PMLQ, he has another thought coming.

A second problem is related to the return of the IMF to Pakistan. The Zardari government has done exactly what previous civilian and military governments have done since 1988 – clutch at an IMF lifeline to try and pull itself out of bankruptcy. But no IMF programme has worked effectively in Pakistan because no government has stuck to the conditions imposed on it by the IMF. The Musharraf regime was luckier; it was bailed out by official foreign financial inflows and debt write-offs after 9/11. This time round, however, the government has inherited a failing economy and hasn’t been able to fix it quickly because it got embroiled in political squabbles with its coalition partners and was stranded without a full time finance minister for months. The soaring price of oil depleted its reserves but lack of commitment to the war on terror compelled the international community to drag its feet on offering financial assistance. To add to its woes, with no small thanks to a strident media, public opinion remains doggedly opposed to both the war on terror and a bailout by the IMF.

The third issue is the matter of the continuing CIA drone attacks on targets in Pakistani territory. Given a lack of consensus on fighting the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, these attacks are the object of much public outrage and government hand-wringing. The suspicion is that Islamabad has secretly given a green light to the Americans, partly because this deflects criticism against the government for not doing more itself and partly because the government cannot enforce a physical ban on the flights without getting into a scrap with the sole superpower which could isolate Islamabad internationally and crush it economically. To add to the government’s woes, both the army and the air force have successfully curried public favour by implying that they have the ability to knock out the drones provided the civilian government is willing to give them the go-ahead. This attempt by the military to win popularity at the expense of the elected government is most unfortunate, even if it is as a reaction to misplaced taunts of senior ex-servicemen to uphold the “honour and dignity” of the armed forces.

Many of these factors will come to a head in the next few months. A new Obama administration in America is committed to throwing thousands more American troops into Afghanistan and heating up the war in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Then there is the question of the judiciary. Even if Mr Iftikhar Chaufhry is still in the cold, Mr Dogar will have gone and a new chief justice of the supreme court will be ensconced in office, who will probably be more sensitive to public opinion than to the executive because his elevation will be based on the enshrined principle of seniority rather than on the government’s goodwill. And PPP-PMLN contradictions will be ready to boil over into conflict on the eve of the Senate elections next March, with threats of parliamentary “forward blocks” actually materializing into hostile positioning for votes of no-confidence in provincial and federal governments.

Even as an all-powerful president, Mr Asif Zardari’s situation is not enviable. He will need more than just political cunning to survive. Mending the economy, putting down the Taliban and stabilizing politics will take some doing. The only way to achieve these goals is to give every political stakeholder his due, a sorely lacking tradition in the murky world of Pakistani politics.

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