For the nine years before 2005, Asaf Ali Zardari, widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was in prison facing corruption charges. On Saturday Zardari was elected president of Pakistan.
Ironically, given Bush’s neoconservative agenda of democratizing the Muslim world, the most significant steps toward genuine parliamentary governance and rule of law, in Pakistan during the past year, have been taken by the Pakistani people and their elected leaders in the teeth of fierce opposition from Bush and Cheney. McCain, too, was a steadfast supporter of military dictator Pervez Musharraf and distinctly unenthusiastic about letting the Pakistani people choose their own government.
Zardari demonstrated that his Pakistan People’s Party is capable of mustering a supermajority in parliament even absent its former coalition partner, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The PMLN pulled out of its coalition with the PPP to protest Zardari’s unwillingness to reinstate the Supreme Court justices dismissed by Gen. Pervez Musharraf last fall (the dictator was making a bid, which ultimately failed, to secure the presidency despite his ineligibility for the office. The constitution requires that presidential candidates be civilians.) That the PPP can rule with the support of some smaller parties and that the government is in no danger of falling is a positive.
Sharif wanted the original court reinstated and the justices appointed by Musharraf to be fired. A few days ago three of the former justices were reinstated by the court itself though since the number of slots for justices has been increased, their return did not require any resignations. The return of the chief justice, Ifikhar Chaudhry, however, would be more difficult, since there cannot be two chief justices and Zardari is unwilling to have Chaudhry leading the court again because the former chief justice is thought to view the corruption charges against Zardari, for the moment dropped, as plausible.
I watched on ARY digital as Justice Syed Zahid Hussain declared that Zardari’s election had restored the wholeness of parliament. I presume he meant that it had restored the sovereignty of parliament and that now all the leadership posts in that body are filled by persons elected to their positions (in contrast to Musharraf, who just grabbed power). Zardari himself declared that “parliament is sovereign,” suggesting that he will stand by his pledge to reduce the powers of the presidency, which were expanded by the generals when they were in control.
Zardari is in many ways a throwback to an earlier era of Pakistani politics. He is from a rural, landed Sindhi clan, and is what they call in Pakistan a “feudal.” He came by his current position through marrying into the landed Bhutto clan, which dominated Pakistani politics in much of the 1970s and 1990s via Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir. In contrast, Zardari’s rival Nawaz Sharif is a steel magnate, a representative of the rising Pakistani business classes. Likewise, Gen. Musharraf championed the white collar urban middle classes in the main, though since they value the rule of law, in the end there was a severe contradiction between his methods of rule and his class base.
As hundreds of thousands of urban lawyers, professionals and young people protested Musharraf’s tyranny this past year, they could not have imagined that they would end up having the general dumped only to see him replaced by a “feudal” from a familiar political dynasty. He returns the disdain, and even called the protesting attorneys “quaint.”
The new president faces many challenges in establishing his legitamacy among the people as opposed to among the country’s parliamentarians. He must demonstrate to a skeptical electorate that he has turned over a new leaf and will no longer merit the nickname “Mr. Ten Percent,” which he earned, it is said, because he demanded a ten percent cut of the value of foreign contracts when Benazir was in power.
Zardari has to find a way to overturn Musharraf’s unconstitutional dismissal of the supreme court. He must also follow through on his pledges to work to reduce the dictatorial powers of the presidency, which flow from martial law amendments to the constitution rather than from popular sovereignty.
He also faces a big problem in the form of the Tehrik-i Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that lie between the North-West Frontier Province and Afghanistan.
On Saturday, a suicide bomber hit a checkpoint on the outskirts of Peshawar, killing at least 35 and wounding dozens. The bad news is that the massive explosion was probably not intended for a small checkpoint, and the payload may have been aimed at Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province, which recently voted in the main to install secular-leaning Pushtun nationalists in the provincial government, ending the rule of the fundamentalist Jama’at-i Islami and its allies, most of whom boycotted last February’s elections. The Muslim radicals have several times attacked the Awami National League politicians, who have no sympathy for fundamentalism or vigilanteism.
Pushtun villagers sometimes wage battles against the fundamentalist guerrillas; such a battle on Friday and Saturday left 24 villagers dead.
The attacks by the US inside the Pakistani border on the Tehrik-i Taliban and on Arab al-Qaeda members have left Pakistani civilians dead this week, raising a public outcry.
It is interesting that when Sen. Barack Obama began pushing for US attacks inside Pakistan on Arab al-Qaeda, he was slammed as impractical by John McCain. In fact, Obama looks closer to the thinking of the US officer corps in Afghanistan than does McCain.
The aerial drone attack on Saturday on a village not far from Miranshah did appear to kill Arab al-Qaeda, but also killed two women and a child. Zardari and other Pakistani politicians have joined in the condemnation, and the government of Pakistan is now stopping the US from using the overland Khyber pass route to provision US troops. Still, it is a little unlikely that the US is able to launch such attacks without the tacit cooperation of the Pakistani government.
Still, Zardari will need to find a way to deal with this crisis, since he cannot survive if the US undermines him with the Pakistani public by openly and repeatedly infringing on Pakistani sovereignty.