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Asif Zardari and the T.I.N.A. Factor

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 30, 2009

    Political obituaries of Asif Zardari after the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance void ab initio might just be slightly premature at this stage. After the initial panic in the PPP rank and file following the Supreme Court judgement, things seem to have settled down some. Sure, the legal minefield that has been laid out for President Zardari remains in place and the hostile courts are hanging like a sword of Damocles over the head of the PPP chief and his close associates. But the military establishment and some powerful media barons appear to have taken a step back in their campaign against Zardari and his cronies. Unless the ruling clique does something really stupid now to rub the military establishment the wrong way – for instance, Zardari’s speech on the second death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto and statements of his close friend and the home minister of Sindh, Dr. Zulfiikar Mirza on how he was ready to break Pakistan after Benazir’s assassination – the Pakistan Army is unlikely to take any precipitate action against the current political leadership. While it is not clear how long the ruling dispensation will be able to cling to office – it has already lost power – what is clear is that even if by some miracle or fortuitous circumstances the PPP-led coalition survives its full term, it will be as nothing more than a glorified municipality.

    A lot will depend on how the courts handle the cases against the top leadership of the PPP. The ruling coalition, which always expected the NRO to be shot down, reacted rather strongly to the short order of the 17 judge full bench of the Supreme Court not because the law was declared ultra vires to the constitution but because the judgement appeared to have singled out President Zardari for special attention. The observations by some of the judges on the cases against Zardari and the directive to reopen the cases in the Swiss courts only confirmed the suspicions that the entire legal challenge to the NRO was mounted in order to fix the co-chairman of the PPP. Interestingly, the one-sided nature of the court ruling created the perception that the PPP leadership was being targeted by the judges (many of them with right-wing, Islamist leaning and who consider PPP an anathema) which has in a sense worked in the favour of the PPP. The barrage of criticism – on the legal merits of the judgement (made by the Human Rights activist, Asma Jehangir) as well as the proclivity for grand-standing by the judges who appear to be even more populist than the politicians (made by one of the leaders of the Lawyers movement for restoration of the judiciary, Ali Ahmed Kurd) – has raised serious questions over the fairness of the judgement.

    Put on the defensive, the judges are now making efforts to be seen to be even-handed. The first indication of this was the notice they issued to the authorities for putting the name of Nusrat Bhutto on the Exit Control List. This was followed up by reopening all the cases of loan write-offs from 1971. If followed to their logical conclusion, the loan write-offs case will end up disqualifying practically all the members of parliament. Not surprisingly, the politicians, cutting across political lines, now seem to be closing ranks against the judiciary. For the moment, the biggest opposition party, PMLN, is playing to the gallery by speaking in favour of the judiciary. But the PMLN leadership also knows that unless the judiciary is reined in, it too will have to put up with judges running amok. More importantly, the PMLN leadership, especially the Sharif brothers, will almost certainly face disqualification if the loan write-off case is pursued seriously by the judges.

    Clearly, the judges’ zeal for populism is creating a situation where the politicians might be left with no choice except to castrate the judiciary and deprive it of many of the powers that the judges are arrogating to themselves. What is more, the military establishment too could end up siding with the political class against the judges. After all, if the courts reopen the infamous ISI pay-offs case – the Mehran bank scandal – then a lot of former senior officials will have their necks on the block. If it was only old cases like the Mehran bank scam, perhaps the current military leadership would not lose too much sleep. But there is every chance that cases and petitions will be filed that could affect the current military leadership, in particular the Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. Already there are questions being asked as to why the Supreme Court is no longer pro-active on the ‘missing persons’ case. There is also pressure on the judges to prosecute General Musharraf on charges of treason for violating the constitution, something that will also pull in his henchmen like Kayani.

    The Pakistan Army has already signalled that it is not in favour of overturning the current system. Apparently, this was the message that Kayani delivered through the leading light of the Lawyer’s Movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, to the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, on the eve of the July 31 judgement in which the courts were ruling on the ‘emergency’ imposed by Musharraf on November 3, 2007. But while the Army is not interested in destabilising the current system, it had a lot of reservations against the national security policy of the PPP-led government. The Pakistan Army resented the growing closeness of Zardari with the United States. It was also not comfortable with Zardari’s India and Kashmir policy or for that matter his unequivocal opposition to the Islamists (read Taliban), his efforts to improve relations with the Karzai regime in Afghanistan and his remarks over-turning the ‘First Use’ nuclear doctrine of Pakistan (which has lost all meaning subsequently after Zardari handed over all his powers as chairman of the National Command Authority to the Prime Minister). This was the reason why the dirty tricks department of the military became active against the government.

    Over the past few months, the military orchestrated the entire campaign of vilification against Zardari and his close associates and brought them under so much pressure that they have now thrown in the towel as far as making policy or taking decisions on issues of national security are concerned. As things stand, the army has once again started wielding complete control over issues relating to national security – namely, relations with the United States, India, Afghanistan, the nuclear programme, doctrine and strategy, the War on Terror, policy on Kashmir, etc. Giving a new dimension to the doctrine of separation of powers, the civilian government of Pakistan will now be responsible for everything except foreign, defence and security issues, which will be the sole preserve of the military. Even political initiatives that have a bearing on national security – for instance, the Balochistan package or the political reforms package in Gilgit-Baltistan – require a clearance from the Pakistan Army.

    With the civilian government going out of its way to placate the army – India-bashing is once again the flavour of the season and the Kashmir issue is slowly but surely coming back to centre-stage – the generals have got what they wanted. It would now be counter-productive for the army to force the government out of office. While there is little doubt that the army would not shed any tears in seeing the back of Mr. Zardari, it might well decide to tolerate him as a necessary evil. Pushing Zardari out now could well upset the entire political applecart, more so after Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has thrown his weight behind the President. Gilani has understood that he will not be able to survive in office for very long – a few months at best – if Zardari is ousted. Ideally, the army would like a light-weight like Gilani to continue. But the number game in the national assembly militates against such an arrangement. The army is also apprehensive that a move against Zardari could easily lead to a reaction in Sindh, something that it would like to avoid at a time when it is already embroiled in combating two insurgencies in FATA and Balochistan.

    If the current dispensation collapses, this will leave basically three options. The first is an in-house change. This could mean a new president without disturbing the rest of the political arrangement. Or it could mean a new government led either by a break-away faction of the PPP and supported by parties like PMLN, PMLQ and MQM. There is also a somewhat remote possibility of a PMLN government supported by other political parties and factions in the national assembly. A new president is easier said than done because any move to displace Zardari will effectively ensure that all other things do not remain the same. Unless Zardari is willing to roll over and play dead, it will mean that the military establishment will have to work overtime with the political players in the National Assembly to cobble together the necessary numbers to form a new government. The problem is that even if such a hotchpotch ‘national government’ were to be put in place, it will be inherently unstable and will make the task of effective governance impossible, thereby making mid-term elections inevitable to restore a semblance of political stability.

    The second option is a mid-term election. Given the current security situation a mid-term election does not seem very feasible. And even if it is held, it will most likely sweep Nawaz Sharif’s party into power. This is not exactly a very welcome prospect for the army because Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to be a pushover. The army also fears that he will wreak vengeance on military officers who crossed his path when he was ousted by Musharraf. Even worse, he will go out of his way to end the army’s political role.

    The third option is what is known as the ‘Bangladesh model’ – a government of technocrats backed by the army. But this option gives rise to two important problems. First, the so-called ‘Bangladesh model’ was originally the ‘Musharraf model’ who until the 2002 elections had a cabinet of technocrats. Neither the ‘Musharraf model’ nor the ‘Bangladesh model’ worked miracles. So what will change now? The second problem relates to the courts and the constitution, for whatever that is worth in Pakistan. The ‘Bangladesh model’ has no constitutional sanction. Unless the courts approve such an arrangement by once again resurrecting the ‘doctrine of necessity’, they will be constrained to strike it down. And if they do not strike it down, the courts will lose every shred of credibility and legitimacy. Of course, under the guise of the ‘Bangladesh model’ the army could overthrow the current judiciary. But this would again bring the situation back to square one where the army could end up being pitted against the public, something it cannot afford especially when it needs the public support in its fight against the ‘bad’ Taliban.

    Given the dialectics of the situation, it would appear that for the moment at least the TINA (there is no alternative) factor operates in favour of the Zardari/Gilani combine especially if they continue to occupy their offices without wielding any real power. The only spoiler in this whole thing could be the Supreme Court. Unless the judges take a step back and desist from opening multiple Pandora’s boxes, they will almost certainly end up destabilising the entire system. What remains to be seen is whether the judiciary survives this destabilisation or whether the politicians and military establishment gang up and fix the judiciary, which in turn will have its own repercussions for the Pakistani state structure. Either way, Pakistan will face great instability and unrest.