Sharif vs Zardari: A fight to the finish or revival of democracy?
The resignation of President Pervez Musharraf has, as expected, unleashed a new power struggle within Pakistan’s fractious coalition. Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and widower of Benazir Bhutto, has staked a claim to the presidency, setting him on a collision course with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) sees Zardari’s candidacy as an attempt to garner more power and delay the restoration of judges sacked by Musharraf last November. PML (N) officials are already saying the row could break up the six-month-old coalition cobbled together after elections in February.
So will there be a fight to the finish between Zardari and Sharif that will drag Pakistan deeper into the mire? Or are the two men simply manoeuvring themselves into the best position they can find in the post-Musharraf era?
Indian writer M.J. Akbar says Zardari and Sharif, having set aside Musharraf, “have begun the far more vicious process of trying to eliminate each other. This is a power-play in which there can be only one victor. Musharraf was the semi-finals. Islamabad is not a big enough town to find space for both Zardari and Sharif.
“The final resolution of this conflict will only come after another general election,” he writes. “In the meantime, the two will try to maximise their control over the instruments and institutions of state. Sharif has his sights on the Supreme Court, which has become the only reserve bank of credibility in a nation where the Constitution has been amenable to the doctrine of necessity — in simpler words, where the judiciary has legalised events rather than law being the determinant of fact. Zardari is more audacious, seeking the supreme office in the land, that of the President, since he is surely convinced that he will not get office through a popular vote.”
In an op-ed in the Daily Times, U.S.-based lawyer Rafia Zakaria bemoans the lack of leadership in Pakistan, creating what she calls a stagnant and elitist political system which is driving young talented Pakistanis abroad to join the thriving Pakistani diaspora. “Politics in Pakistan, plagued as it is by political opportunism and expedience, has devolved to a level of absurdity where even Ms (Paris) Hilton would be a viable candidate for president,” she writes.
But is the current row the beginning of the end for Pakistan’s latest experiment in civilian democracy or its opposite — ie. evidence of a new and perhaps chaotic vigour in Pakistani politics as the country re-emerges from years of military rule?
Juan Cole in Informed Comment writes that “although the wrangling over who will be president is being reported in the U.S. press as a crisis, I don’t see it that way. It is, rather, an ordinary political process in which eventually there will be a winner who will garner enough votes to be elected. No one is brandishing a gun over all this to my knowledge. You might as well call the current presidential campaign in the U.S. to determine who will succeed George W. Bush a crisis.”
And leaving ideological debate aside, would Pakistan’s closest allies — China, Saudi Arabia and the United States — really be prepared to stand back and let the country descend into chaos?
Saudi Arabia, facing a challenge of its own from al Qaeda, has no interest in seeing it growing stronger in Pakistan, and may demand stability in return for its pledge to defer oil payments, as I wrote in a previous post. China has always called for a stable Pakistan, although like Saudi Arabia, it has been careful not to be seen to be interfering in its domestic politics.
And the United States so badly needs Pakistan’s help in tackling the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan that it is likely to work hard to build a good relationship with whoever emerges as the strongest leader in Pakistan, including Zardari. According to the New York Times, doubts are growing among American officials over the level of cooperation they can expect from Pakistan Army chief Pervez Kayani “who has appeared less interested in how to deal with the Taliban than with the sagging morale of his undertrained, underequipped troops”. Sharif, the newspaper says, is seen as too close to conservative Islamic forces in Pakistan. “To the surprise of many here, the civilian with the trump card, then, may be Mr. Zardari,” it says.
Winston Churchill famously noted: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Cause for optimism in Pakistan’s new civilian democracy? Or have the hopes raised by February’s elections been dashed?