Pakistan: The loneliness of President Zardari

March 16, 2009

Now that President Asif Ali Zardari has agreed to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and   offered to challenge a court decision against his rival Nawaz Sharif, is he going to come under pressure to give up his powers to dismiss parliament, another popular demand?

For many Pakistanis, that is the next stage in the rapid emasculation of Zardari’s presidency.  Article 58-2B of the constitution, which many blame for much of the country’s political instability, has several times been used to sack elected governments. Zardari had promised to ditch it but has yet to deliver.

“The next thing is to throw (out) 58-2B – it will fix the super power of president then,” was a post on microblogging site Twitter where activists, lawyers and ordinary people, caught up in the drama of the moment, shared information and pictures in real time. 

He has already lost his Information Minister. Sherry Rehman, a long-time confidante of his late wife Benazir Bhutto,  abruptly quit after the government temporarily blocked transmission of  the popular GEO news television channel.

Some other members of his party have been critical of his actions, deepening his isolation behind the presidential building in Islamabad where he increasingly has been cofined in recent weeks because of security concerns.

But as the Washiington Post reports it is the breakdown of his authority on the ground, especially in Punjab, that should worry him even more.

“As the demonstrations escalated in Lahore, police first responded with volleys of tear gas. But by mid-afternoon they suddenly withdrew from the streets, while numerous city and provincial officials were reported to have resigned. The swift collapse of authority signaled the end of Zardari’s bid to seize control of Punjab, the most politically influential region of the country, and raised serious questions about his ability to remain president.”

Some people thought the shift in power was already happening. Al Jazeera in its report noted that it was Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani who made the announcement to the nation  about the the decision to reinstate the chief judge.

Nawaz Sharif was also expected to meet Gilani at some point on Monday, and it is Gilani who is likely to reconcile any outstanding rifts within his party as a result of Zardari’s actions during the last few days, it said. “In short, Gilani is the man to watch.”

Zardari “is in a blind alley, completely isolated,” and may have to hand much of his power to Gilani as the price for remaining in office, said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a politics professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, in this report here.

Is his loneliness complete or is this only one twist in a test of political nerves?

[Reuters photo of a protest in Lahore and  President Asif Ali Zardari]

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