What gives? The rapid transformation of a spat between the MQM and the PML-N into one where the information secretary of the PML-N gives the presidency a ‘48-hour ultimatum’, now ‘withdrawn’, raises two very basic questions: why now and to what end?
There is little doubt, at least in the PML-N and off the record among politicians and observers generally, about the ‘who’ part; everyone is convinced that the presidency has at the very least done too little too late to distance itself from the raking up of the PML-N’s past dirty deeds. And the consistency with which specific names from among the president’s men, including our ambassador to the US, are mentioned in connection with the ‘campaign’ against Nawaz Sharif is striking.
So if we assume, admittedly always a dangerous proposition but one tempered by the near certainty of the PML-N and others, that Zardari and his closest aides at the very least don’t mind antagonising the PML-N, then we need to ponder why.
There are several obvious possibilities. Zardari wants to change the ‘try/hang Musharraf’ topic exercising the minds of many. Zardari is trying to distract the country from the various corruption ‘scandals’ that have surfaced lately and implicated the highest levels of the PPP. Zardari is taking his revenge for recent rumours of a purported minus-one formula in the works. Zardari is upset about his perennially low ratings and wants to bring the sky-high Sharif down a notch or two.
In sections of the media, the most popular of these theories is the ‘save Musharraf’ one. Zardari will do anything to undermine those clamouring for justice against Musharraf, goes the theory. But Zardari probably doesn’t give a toss about Musharraf. Why should he? He’s already ousted Musharraf from and taken over the office that the former strongman so desperately clung to — so there’s clearly no love lost there.
If the PML-N really wants to try Musharraf they will have to take on the army and, now it seems, risk the Saudi king’s ire. So Zardari doesn’t need to fight Musharraf’s fight; all he has to do is wait and see who wins that tussle and then side with the winner.
The other theories amount to fighting fire with fire; if Zardari’s opponents try to push him into the snake pit of allegations and rumour once again, then his team is ready to drag his opponents into that pit too. But the Sharif slurs don’t seem designed to have been just a warning shot to get Sharif to call off his attack dogs; they seem more like a red rag to a bull — something meant to push Sharif over the edge.
Why would Zardari want to do that though? And why would Sharif, unless you really buy into the theory that he’s a born-again pacifist, have responded with such equanimity?
Cutting through the thick fog of conspiracy that hangs over the whole affair, there is at least one thing that is apparent: the PML-N needs something from Zardari that only he can give, but Zardari doesn’t seem inclined to give it, at least not yet.
Sharif wants Zardari to give back the powers that Musharraf arrogated to the presidency, powers that tilt the institutional balance decisively in favour of the president. Which is why Sharif keeps demanding that the 17th Amendment be undone first and only then a constitutional reforms package be debated.
Zardari’s problem is that while the status quo suits him best, he’s on the wrong side of the consensus of the political class. Other than whoever is currently occupying the presidency and his acolytes, no politician believes that the president and his appointed governors should have the power to dissolve assemblies or that the president rather than the prime minister should have the power to make key appointments in the judiciary and the armed services.
It does Zardari little good that it’s a party man occupying the prime minister’s seat at the moment. Whatever Gilani’s deficiencies, he knows that Zardari is stuck with him — any attempt to oust Gilani would almost surely trigger the parliamentary rebellion that the anti-Zardari folks keep hoping for. So if formal power is stripped away from the presidency, Zardari’s de facto power would also almost certainly slip.
Ah, but why couldn’t Zardari pull a Putin, or ZAB even, and simply take over an all-powerful prime minister’s office after transferring power to it? Well, for the same reason he can’t sack Gilani — it would go down terribly with the ranks of the PPP itself, let alone the opposition.
Of more direct relevance to Sharif perhaps of a neutralised presidency is that if the PML-N does decide to push for mid-term elections, it won’t have to deal with Zardari standing at the ready to pull the plug on a PML-N-led government at the first opportunity — a very realistic fear when you remember that a PML-N government can only come to power by knocking out Zardari’s PPP.So politically isolated but powerful as Zardari is at the moment, muddying the waters with the PML-N would give him the perfect excuse to not change the status quo: I can’t get a constitutional amendment done because the PML-N has gone ballistic and won’t listen to reason.
If true, the question is, is it a master stroke or the act of desperate man?
My guess is the latter. Zardari’s woes actually began when he became president. It was a clever move tactically, but flawed strategically. Clever because he got himself immunity, he has a direct say at the centre and in the provinces (see the dispute between Punjab governor and CM over the power to appoint judges) and he is both king and kingmaker at the same time (the latter because of his appointment powers). Flawed because Zardari can only hang on to those powers at the cost of disregarding the political consensus against them.
For the rest of us, the problem in Zardari pooh-poohing that consensus is that it all but guarantees a permanent political crisis, a crisis that may ebb and flow but one whose very existence could trigger all sorts of unpredictable events.
So a circus with a purpose perhaps, but definitely not a purpose we should be happy about.