The Nation Editor's Note: In a concession to opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani government agreed Monday to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Asif Ali Zardari never aspired publicly to be a political leader in Pakistan--that is until the assassination of his wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. In his heyday as first spouse, he seemed content to use his proximity to power to enrich himself behind the scenes while leading a playboy life. Now it must be clear even to those in Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party who struggled valiantly to support him after he claimed the presidency of Pakistan last year that he has been a colossal disaster--to the nation and the party.
The spectacle on Sunday of an opposition leader whom Zardari tried to silence leading a huge, enthusiastic march to the capital against the president, barging calmly out of house arrest, through police lines and unafraid of military troops, is only the latest and most telling of testimonies to the president's misjudgments and blunders. He has almost succeeded in making the rule of General Pervez Musharraf look good.
The political confrontation in Pakistan poses multiple problems for the United States. The decision to throw America's lot in with the Bhutto-Zardari clan in 2007 was made by the Bush administration, yet another legacy with which the Obama team will need to wrestle. Political chaos is the last environment the US needs as it tries to forge a workable partnership with Pakistan in the face of Islamic pressures, and in advance of an international conference on the future of Afghanistan. What if, in a scenario almost too worrying to contemplate, Zardari were to be forced to step down, or a new parliamentary election were called, with an unpredictable outcome? The United States would have to start over cultivating political allies.
In recent weeks, with the Pakistan economy in decline (after some improvement in the Musharraf years), new pressures from India, Islamic militancy not only on the rise but also able to cobble together no-go zones under Shariah law in previously moderate pockets of the country, broadcast bans imposed and threats of military force, Zardari has thoroughly alienated the most prosperous and populous of the country's four provinces--Punjab, the home base of the beleagured opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, who led the march on Islamabad.
Sharif, a wealthy (and allegedly also corrupt) Punjabi from an industrialist family, has been a leading politician in and out of power (and exile) for two decades. He was prime minister twice, leading the Pakistan Muslim League into national election victories before dismissing General Musharraf and being overthrown by him when Sharif attempted to block the general's plane from landing in Karachi from an official trip to Sri Lanka.
After time in exile in London and the Middle East, Sharif has proved lately to be a very wily and accomplished politician, more fluent in English and much more media-savvy than when he began his career in the 1980s, and apparently more measured in strategy. That he commands a following in Punjab has never been in doubt. This raises the question of why Zardari, a Sindhi from the south, would launch a frontal attack last month on the elected government of Punjab.
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When the Supreme Court ruled in February that Nawaz Sharif would be barred from public office and his brother Shahbaz removed as the chief minister of the province, Zardari's hand was widely seen behind the judicial decision, which gave the president executive control over the Punjabi provincial government. The gates to dissent were flung wide, and mass protests have taken over streets, parks and now highways. Lahore, the center of protest, is not only Punjab's capital but also Pakistan's intellectual and cultural center.
As a measure of the crisis Zardari now faces, news reports say that he agreed early on Monday to restore the chief justice to the bench. But whether that will stall the anti-government movement led by Sharif will be known only in the days to come.
Cleverly, Sharif attracted to his cause some of the same middle-class professionals who marched against Musharraf in 2007 after the dismissal of judges, including the country's former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Sharif has now become Chaudhry's champion, knowing that Zardari fears that the judge, if reinstated, could revive corruption charges against him that were dropped in a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto to clear the way for her ill-fated return to Pakistan.
Also in the crowds turning out in support of Sharif are contingents from at least one Muslim religious party, reporters on the scene noted. In the background of recent developments lurk fears among Pakistan's moderate majority that Sharif could enhance his political base by opening more space to Islamic parties, which historically do poorly in national elections. There is also concern that Islamic militants outside the mainstream could take advantage of the political chaos to commit terrorist acts.
As American officials and diplomats try to cool tempers on both sides, and have pressed Zardari for some concessions, Sharif has gained the upper hand, and is making the most of the moment. On Sunday he accused Zardari of turning the country into a police state and outdoing even Musharraf in trying to stifle protest.
There has also been unrest in the Pakistan Peoples Party and among officials appointed by Zardari. Several have resigned from government. For the party, cursed by refusal of Benazir Bhutto to treat it as anything but a family monopoly without an institutional base, there will have to be some rethinking ahead.