Perspectives on Pakistan
Guest contribution: Presidential elections in Pakistan
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The writer is Pakistan’s High Commissioner to London and a former advisor to the late Benazir Bhutto.
By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Ever since the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party announced its decision to field the widower of the former Prime Minister, Senator Asif Ali Zardari, as its Presidential candidate, he has become the target of a well-calculated media blitzkrieg especially when he is emerging as a sure winner. Besides an attempt to resurrect the dead horse of alleged corruption, he is also being accused of being unhealthy, of having unsound mind.
Skies had fallen on me when Ms Benazir Bhutto was martyred. It seemed the end of the world. My profound apprehensions were regarding the future of Pakistan – destined to be a failing or a failed state – long before her cold-blooded murder.
I had always looked at her as the only national leader who had the commitment, rare courage, unprecedented popularity, determination and dauntless perseverance that could save the country from a widely predicted dénouement. Her assassination had pushed the country to the edge of a precipice. A sheer nudge – from the deeply grieved angry nation – especially in Sindh where the reaction to her assassination was most pronounced as reflected in the people’s spontaneous outburst that they would not have anything more to do with Pakistan – could have plunged the country into the valley of death and doom but for the timely intervention of Senator Asif Ali Zardari. He grasped the gravity of the situation and stood up to save Pakistan from break-up. His words to angry and violent masses: “Your dear leader Benazir Bhutto had laid down her life to save Pakistan and not to destroy it.” And both he and his resolute 18-year old son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari re-enforced Benazir Bhutto’s life-long philosophy that democracy is the best revenge.
Thus the populist wrath was transformed into an electoral victory to defeat both the dictator and his collaborators. Indeed the worst adversity for him and the nation had made Zardari a man of destiny and he converted the nation’s profound grief into unparalleled strength. In deference to her wishes he set himself on the task of translating her dying commitment to the nation that her death should serve as a catalyst for change. Not a politician in his wife’s mould and having spent more than half of his married life in incarceration, the manner Zardari has handled the post-Bhutto situation has made him past master at the game. SAZ has definitely out-manoeuvred those who wanted to play games with him including the former President. He has achieved the much desired change peacefully and without risking the lives of his people what many other senior politicians had been seeking through confrontation.
During my last visit to Pakistan (June), I found it in the midst of a propaganda vertigo and a campaign that SAZ was allegedly in cahoots with the former President. I had left Pakistan reassured by SAZ when he told me “he” will be out by August. His critics even accused him of giving the former President unnecessary time to regain what they called his hold on power. They failed to understand that the time-delay was well-spent in evolving a fool-proof strategy to outmanoeuvre the President.
His singular achievement was the MQM’s decision to abstain from voting in Sindh Assembly that made its no-confidence in the former President unanimous. His triumph was complete when MQM’s Quaid Altaf Husain stole the march on others by unconditionally nominating SAZ as MQM’s Presidential candidate soon to be followed by others. As a result Mr Zardari has emerged “as the frontrunner to become the country’s next president after receiving the support of a key opposition party” was the considered view of UK’s most prestigious newspaper The Financial Times (London, August 21).
Mr Husain believes that Mr Zardari will be the best candidate for the country. “He will keep the federation together and promote harmony as well as national unity.” “The way Mr Zardari handled the issue of [President Pervez Musharraf's] resignation is really admirable.” Mr Altaf Husain also believes that since the President has to be from a smaller province in that case there could not be a better candidate than Mr Zardari. Indeed, Zardari was the first among national politicians to have sought forgiveness publicly from the Balochi leaders and Balochi people for the atrocities committed against them – a sample of his sincerity to carry the entire nation along with him.
The Financial Times reaffirmed the inevitability of Senator Zardari’s candidature as President when it conclusively quoted a senior western diplomat in Islamabad that, given the PPP’s credentials as a liberal political party, Mr Zardari’s presidency would appeal to the US and its European partners.
“Right now, the US is keen to allow a more populist figure to come to take charge” and Zardari as a PPP candidate shall carry with him Benazir Bhutto’s powerful credentials along with PPP’s own image – an image of tolerance and liberal values” is the consensus view in the diplomat enclave of Islamabad. As events unfold, the coast seems to be clear for Mr Zardari to play a historic role as Pakistan’s democratic President replacing a dictator.
As the time for the presidential race is running out with Zardari in the lead by miles dirtier media spinning has also gone into top gear. While notwithstanding the usual stories and innuendos, one senior political pundit has bypassed most of the media spinners by putting in words: “A great threat perception is fast developing in Islamabad’s key power centres, around Asif Ali Zardari’s attempt to occupy the presidency. The concern is not about his political right to contest the election but about the way he has adopted, the tactics that he is using, the misleading claims, broken promises, petty politicking, unauthorised name dropping and other tactics to achieve his political ambitions”.
The above observation is typical of the new media culture in Pakistan. When one is impossible to be brought down factually, ruthless fiction is the weapon most profusely used. No other political leader has so far shown as much of courage as Zardari by accepting where he has erred. He definitely did not fulfil the Bourbon Declaration for the restoration of judiciary when it was sought to be implemented at gun-point of ultimatums and deadlines.
Could there be a better test than by knowing the taste of the pudding by eating it? Most certainly not! SAZ has initiated the process and several judges from those who had been removed by President Musharraf are back and the rest would surely follow. As far as the case of Mr Justice Iftekhar Choudhry is concerned, many among the lawyers’ fraternity and judges believe that he has become too politicised. Quite a few of his colleagues feel that it would be best for the independence of judiciary if he formally joins politics. Everybody is free to have his/her opinion.
Half a sentence regarding name dropping by Mr Zardari as alleged – without of course naming names – leaves much more than meets the eye. When a Pakistani leader says publicly that the Pakistan Army under Army Chief General Ashfaque Pervez Kiani is sincerely committed to upholding the constitution, supremacy of the parliament and to remain at the beck and call of the democratically elected government of the day – it is merely a statement of facts and not name dropping as alleged.
Last but not the least a word or two about the physical condition of Mr Zardari. Reuters has quoted a spokesman of Nawaz Sharif’s party (PML-N) as saying “if the report of Zardari’s mental illness were true, he would be ineligible to run for president.” He seems to have let the cat out of the bag inadvertently. It seems that those parties that have put up their candidates for the presidency besides the PPP – though sleeping in different beds – are seeing the same dream – to see SAZ out of the race – somehow.
I have known Mr Zardari very closely since his marriage with martyred Bhutto in 1987. On no occasion did I find him absent-minded or forgetful as reported by the Financial Times. I can vouch that Mr Zardari was never mentally sick. During his nearly 8 long years of incarceration (starting from November 5, 1996) he was subjected to many kinds of torture to break him up. He almost died when he had his tongue pulled. It was the courage of some Sindhi police officials who had intervened to save Zardari.
Had they not informed his family and friends and had not the then Governor Sindh General Moinuddin Haider intervened, he would have bled to death. On the Governor’s intervention he was removed to Aga Khan Hospital and his life saved.
Despite the torture, Mr Zardari did not bend. It was his dauntless courage that kept him going through the most adverse circumstances even during the years of his continued detention under President Musharraf when his emissaries frequently visited him to break him up through a carrot and stick policy.
Finally he was let off by the Supreme Court. Obviously eight years of stress did affect him and he ended up with angina and was treated in Dubai and later in the United States. Bhutto’s assassination was worst thing to happen to him. Had he been a sick person he would have collapsed and been broken up by the horrendous tragedy and had he not been a medically and physically fit person he could not have kept his cool, looked after his children and family, taken control of the party leadership before it was broken up or taken over by a Musharraf plant.
The finest hour of his reservoir of courage and herculean strength also saved the country when the people of smaller provinces – especially Sindh – had reacted violently in anger and had declared a UDI as a natural reaction to Bhutto assassination. It was Asif Zardari who braved their anger and calmed them down by telling them that his wife and their leader martyred Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto had laid down her life, given her blood to save Pakistan and not to destroy it. Had he joined in their chorus for revenge, no power on earth could have saved the country from dismemberment. He mobilised the nation on the legacy of Bhutto that democracy is the best revenge and turned the violent tide to vote for the PPP’s return to power.
Let me share with you here my own experience of jail in President Farooq Laghari/Nawaz’s time. I was detained for more than seven months, inflicted lot of pressure to force me to perjure at gun point against Ms Bhutto and Mr Zardari that I developed stress diabetes, blood pressure and dysfunction of kidneys. Not only for months I used to hallucinate and needed medical help. I received treatment and counselling in London and soon I overcame both trauma and stress.
Unfortunately, the media these days run after scandals without considering one’s circumstances. Zardari had suffered a long sentence of eleven years (30 months in first Ishaq-Nawaz govt) without being convicted by any court of law and without any charge being proven against him despite the government of the day spending billions to have him convicted. But that does not mean he had not been stressed or suffered from it. Like me SAZ did seek some medical help and was fit in no time.
All through the years – from 1977 to this day – persistent attempts have been made to hijack or break the PPP of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Benazir had outsmarted this by nominating Senator Asif Ali Zardari as her successor. Being the closest aide to her, she had discussed with me all possible eventualities and why she had wished to write a will. How prophetic her fears were amply proven.
Senator Zardari is a man of courage, resilience and steadfastness for more than eleven years – facing all sorts of tortures and attempts on his life-who will not barter the party’s interest for his own safety.
(The writer is Pakistan’s current High Commissioner to the Court of St. James and was Advisor to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto)