Faced with terrorism, a flagging economy and a raft of potential lawsuits, how long can Pakistan’s president survive?
With his chequered past and unlikely rise to the top, it is understandable that Asif Ali Zardari has faced constant calls to resign ever since becoming president of Pakistan two years ago. The central focus of the grievances has been Pakistan’s supreme court where a raft of charges have been submitted against Zardari and most of the senior leaders of the ruling Pakistan Peoples party by a motley mix of political parties, private citizens, and the court itself.
But in the glasshouse that is Pakistani politics the risk is that perceptions of judicial independence will be shattered by all the stone throwing. To understand the fracas it is necessary to consider recent history. After public pressure forced the Zardari government to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, there was widespread celebration that at last Pakistan had found one institution that was above the cronyism that has plagued political life here.
Tables turn quickly in Pakistan. So it is perhaps no surprise that almost immediately the reconstituted supreme court began hearing challenges against members of the Zardari government. That included a petition by the chief justice himself against the National Reconciliation Ordinance, an amnesty granted by former President Pervez Musharraf after the United States pushed him to welcome Zardari and his wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, back into Pakistani politics.
Last December the Chaudhry supreme court ruled the NRO was unconstitutional, opening the floodgates for the current cases. Although attention has focused on charges against Zardari, the irony is that many of those bringing them have a history of intimidating the courts, disavowing them for being un-Islamic or have themselves faced charges ranging from corruption to murder at some point in their career.
What makes the current drama intriguing is the way that age-old double standard has become enmeshed with new political twists. Historically incapable of reining in the powerful, the courts have always been a favoured forum for otherwise disparate opposition groups to occasionally forget their mutual disdain in order to channel their common enmity towards whoever happens to be in government. The difference now is that, for the first time, the powerful are fearful of Pakistan’s highest court. That exposes it to the risk of being swept along with the political zeitgeist.
As the country continues to struggle with terrorism and a flagging economy, Asif Zardari, long considered uncritically obedient to diktats from Washington, has become emblematic of a government that most Pakistanis find easy to hate and impossible to love. Known derisively as “Mr 10%” for his alleged embezzlement of government revenues while his wife was prime minister in the 1990s, the president has faced several lawsuits in Pakistan, Britain, France and Switzerland over the last 15 years. Although most of them were dropped after the NRO, the supreme court’s ruling that it was unconstitutional has breathed new life into Pakistan’s courts and at least two cases in Switzerland and France.
Like any politician, Zardari will do everything in his power to cling to the presidency. In a departure from what has hitherto been an aloof tenure, he has begun a countrywide speaking tour aimed at rousing public confidence. But, ironically, there is a good chance he will agree to curtail his legal and de facto powers as president. Already he has transferred the authority to launch Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to the prime minister, a largely symbolic gesture given the army’s control of military affairs.
Yet Zardari still retains the power to appoint the chief of army staff, the most powerful post in the country, and dismiss the National Assembly. With General Ashfaq Kayani‘s term as army chief set to expire this year and parliament the only institution with the lawful power to revoke his presidential immunities, Zardari retains key bargaining chips should his situation deteriorate.
As president, Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity from criminal prosecution. But some legal experts argue that it does not preclude civil suits. Some, invoking nebulous provisions of the constitution inserted by the Islamist dictator Zia ul-Haq in 1985, have called for his removal on the grounds of poor character. Whatever the result of these arguments, it is clear that Zardari will be exposed to a toxic cocktail of civil and criminal charges the moment he leaves office.
Do not be surprised, then, if Zardari flees the country once his presidency ends, or if the Obama administration demands that he be left unmolested as a private citizen – much as the Bush administration protected former president Pervez Musharraf from prosecution when he resigned in August 2008. How does the supreme court fit into this? No one really knows. With the ball firmly in the court, however, it remains to be seen if the judges will pursue the military, mullahs and other politicians with the same vigour as they are pursuing Asif Zardari.