Asif Zardari as Next Pakistani President: Hope and Despondency

Pakistan is scheduled to elect its next president on Sep 6 after the resignation of General Pervez Musharraf from that office on Aug 18. From current evidence, it appears that Asif Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), will emerge victorious in the three-way contest. Given his dramatic rise from what the Pakistan media has characterized as "playboy to first husband" - and later "Mr. 10 percent" - to grieving widower of Benazir Bhutto, Zardari is now a few days away from the highest constitutional office in Pakistan.

A preliminary review would suggest that there is cause for some hope and considerable despondency at the turn of events - for Pakistan and its principal external interlocutors.

The reason for anticipating a Zardari victory despite the bitter rivalry between the PPP and the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) lies in the numbers game. As per existing procedure, the Pakistani president is elected by an electoral college of 702 voters. These comprise 342 National Assembly (NA) members (equivalent of Indian Lok Sabha MPs); 100 senators (like the Rajya Sabha); and 65 votes for each of the four provinces as represented by their assemblies. The latter is a distinctive Pakistani formulation, wherein irrespective of their numbers, Balochistan with 65 members is the base being the smallest numerically and all other provinces are indexed accordingly.

Thus Punjab with a 371-member provincial assembly will have one vote for roughly six members and Sind (168 members) and NWFP (124 members) will be indexed to a base of 65 votes.

In the current 2008 Pakistani legislature - both federal and provincial - the deck is stacked in favor of the PPP and Zardari and it is averred that barring some extraordinary intervention (Allah, America or Army), the Sep 6 verdict is foregone. Asif Zardari will soon be President Zardari.

Preliminary estimates indicate that in the three- candidate race - being nominees of the PPP, PML-N and PML-Q, these being the more credible contestants - the PPP candidate and Benazir widower may well obtain more than 360 votes. Disaggregated in favor of Zardari, these are 193 votes in the NA, (124 PPP plus 69 allies); Senate 47 (12 PPP plus 35 allies); Balochistan 57, Sind 31, and 19 each from NWFP and Punjab respectively. It is instructive that as per current estimates - South Asia's horse-trading and buying of legislators till the moment of voting cannot rule out a shift in numbers - the PML-N and PML-Q will obtain only about 128 votes each in the Electoral College.

Thus Nawaz Sharif, a former elected prime minister and perhaps the most experienced and representative political leader in all of Pakistan, who once noted that the very mention of the word Bhutto makes his blood "boil", will have to accept this verdict and cohabit with President Zardari - at least for a while!

The reason why this transition in Pakistan is welcome, despite all the opprobrium associated with Asif Zardari personally, is the symbolism embedded in this change of guard. Pakistan has two ontological challenges that the current civilian leadership has to address, as the elected representatives of the 'awam' (the people) whose true interests and welfare have been repeatedly jeopardized.

The first is the skewed nature of the civil-military relationship going back to the days of Field Marshal Ayub Khan and his successors, right down to General Pervez Musharraf and the concomitant rise of 'Military Inc.' - to borrow the title of Pakistani scholar Ayesha Siddiqa's very revealing book.

All South Asia watchers should read this book to get a sense of the manner in which the Pakistani military has subsumed the state and its various organs and appropriated sizeable assets unto itself, thereby creating a huge corporate interest with numerous 'fauji' (military) stakeholders. The much discussed Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its close linkages with the mullah and the militant-terrorist are part of this malignant but effective ecosystem.

The Pakistani political spectrum that has connived with the 'fauj' (army) and benefited from its intervention - Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto are prime examples - now wants to clean the stables as it were. But this is a Herculean task and the PPP-led Gilani government was foiled in its effete attempt in July to wrest ISI from the army chief-president and place it under civilian control. Evidently Musharraf as president did not allow this in the supreme national interest. Thus the Zardari election marks the symbolic ascendancy of the civilian spectrum but how substantive this change will be is still suspect. Yet it must be welcomed.

The second fundamental challenge is the manner in which the Pakistani military and the opaque establishment have defined the nation's identity, security interests and related policies. Much of this predicated on an intense anti-India plank and the centrality of Kashmir - the latter being a symptom of a deeper malignancy. It merits recall that Musharraf had once opined that even if Kashmir is resolved to Pakistan's satisfaction, this was no guarantee of permanent peace with India! In the process, over the decades, the Pakistani establishment has distorted Islam and supported covert jihad - first against India and now against Afghanistan. Predictably the blow-back effect of this fervor has scorched parts of Pakistan and the Lal Masjid incident of July 2007 was only the beginning of a virus that has now spread to the FATA, NWFP and Balochistan regions.

Will a President Zardari be able to effectively bring about the correctives to these two fundamental challenges? The hope that one referred to lies in the integrity (an oxymoron when applied to Zardari as many Pakistanis aver!) and determination that the Zardari-Gilani-Sharif civilian combine can bring to the table over the next few years. In this matrix, the orientation of the army and its current chief, Gen. Pervez Kayani, will be significant. The current mood in the liberal spectrum of Pakistan's civil society is a sense of deep disillusionment with the fauj and Kayani is perceived to be a prudent man - but his convictions appear to be for the status quo.

The despondency about the Zardari elevation as president stems from the fragility of the current political dispensation in Pakistan and its recent coalition culture. Pakistan needs not just an effective government but a responsible opposition in its legislature. Both Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, despite their deep and bitter rivalry, have an onerous responsibility to stay the course and work for a collective good - that of the Pakistani people. If they fail and a permutation of the three As is back in the saddle, nascent hope will crystallize into permanent despondency, which augurs ill for the entire South Asian region.

(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at cudayb@gmail.com)


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