Pakistan’s Zardari holds off his political foes — for now

President gives up some powers, faces pressure to relinquish more

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

President Asif Ali Zardari is caught between pressure to work with Washington and the need to improve relations with Pakistan's army.

President Asif Ali Zardari is caught between pressure to work with Washington and the need to improve relations with Pakistan’s army. (Riccardo De Luca/associated Press)

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — President Asif Ali Zardari, fighting to keep his job amid pressure from opponents in the media, the courts, the Parliament and the military, appears to have reasserted his grip on the presidency for the time being, according to analysts here.

But Zardari’s government remains caught between pressure to support Washington in the war against Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan and the need to improve its tenuous relations with the army, which is focused on fighting domestic Taliban extremists and mistrusts the Obama administration’s friendship with India, Pakistan’s neighbor and arch rival.

On Monday, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani — who reports to Zardari but is also a political rival — warned in a television interview that any sizable increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan would lead to a spillover of insurgents into Pakistan, further destabilizing the border area where troops are now conducting a ground and aerial war against domestic Taliban forces.

The warning from Gillani came one day before President Obama is scheduled to announce his long-awaited new Afghan strategy, which is likely to include adding tens of thousands of more troops.

In the past week, Pakistan’s embattled president has had to relinquish a number of executive powers to Gillani to placate his adversaries. Zardari agreed Friday to transfer control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to the prime minister, and has also given up his right to dissolve Parliament, an authority he inherited through a decree by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

Now, Zardari’s opponents in Parliament are demanding that he give up even more authority, and some have called on him to resign. Zardari cannot be impeached because his Pakistan People’s Party dominates the legislature, but it is now being widely predicted that he will serve out his term with greatly reduced powers.

Meanwhile, the president has also become vulnerable to legal action by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. An amnesty for past corruption charges against Zardari and a host of other officials expired Saturday, and although the president cannot be prosecuted while in office, the high court could also rule that his election was illegitimate and then pursue the original cases against him.

But Zardari, backed into a corner by multiple adversaries, has come out swinging. In a defiant speech last week, he lashed out at “political actors” seeking to dethrone him and sharply criticized certain opponents in the media. He also forced the cancellation of a cable TV show whose host often criticized him.

Such clumsy actions drew further ridicule from the anti-Zardari media. Shaheen Sehbai, editor of the News International newspaper, wrote in a sarcastic column that he “laughed and laughed” at Zardari’s “rants.” Sehbai has called for the president to “step down with dignity,” hand over his powers to Gillani or become a figurehead.

Zardari appears to have temporarily fended off a far more powerful opponent: the army. Analysts said that although the army is still unhappy about Zardari’s concessions to Washington and soft stance on India, and has been working against him behind the scenes, it does not want to be linked to a messy or illegitimate change of government.

Moreover, military experts noted that the army is heavily dependent on U.S. spare parts and equipment to wage its current air war against the Taliban and cannot afford to sabotage Zardari’s ties with Washington just as U.S. officials are calling for a new “strategic relationship” with Pakistan.

“For Zardari to go, there has to be a definite push from somewhere, and it usually comes from Rawalpindi,” the city where army headquarters is located, said Ayaz Amir, a political commentator and legislator from the rival Pakistan Muslim League-N. “I don’t see that catalyst coming on the horizon.”

The president has also received a political lifeline from a surprising source — his longtime rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N. Until this month, Sharif had been seen as biding his time and waiting for Zardari to self-destruct so he could run for president in midterm elections.

But in a high-profile TV interview recently, Sharif struck a more statesmanlike chord. He said he did not support a midterm election or power-sharing formula. He warned that “time is running out for democracy” in Pakistan and that obsessive partisan competition was partly to blame.

A third potential source of trouble for the president, Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, also seems less likely to pounce than he did just a few weeks ago. Analysts noted that the president has been careful not to antagonize the court and that the judiciary could also be victimized in any forcible change of government.

“I don’t think the chief justice wants to join hands with the army and bring Zardari down,” said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of strategic and defense studies at Quaid-i-Azam University. Chaudhry was fired by Musharraf and then restored by a lawyers’ crusade under Zardari. “He knows that the judiciary can only be strong in a democracy,” Hussain said.

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