The Sick Man of Pakistan

In Dubai for medical treatment with coup rumors swirling back home, Asif Ali Zardari's presidency appears to be on its last legs. So what else is new?


The truth is out there — but it doesn’t really matter what it is. This seems to be the mantra for politics in Pakistan these days, and none of us are immune from it. The Pakistani press was quick to judge President Asif Ali Zardari’s last-minute trip to Dubai for medical treatment as a form of political exile in disguise at the behest of the military. His departure instantly confirmed the prevailing view that Zardari is increasingly on the ropes with the military and that the "Memogate" scandal — in which Zardari allegedly drafted a cable to the U.S. government offering to reshape Pakistan’s military leadership — was indeed the straw that broke the camel’s back for the military. This is Pakistan after all, a place where the military is always in charge. Is it any wonder none of us really waited to learn the full details of Zardari’s trip to Dubai before speculating on the political possibilities of a post-Zardari Pakistan?

Rumors of Zardari’s political demise have been greatly exaggerated a number of times over the course of his eventful three-year presidency. While it’s certainly too early to count him out now, his already weak political position now seems even further compromised, and it’s not too soon to look at the scenarios for how this weak, but surprisingly resilient, leader could leave the stage and who might replace him.  

Given Pakistan’s historic penchant for dramatic changes in power — with three successful coups and numerous unsuccessful attempts since 1949 — the military shenanigans scenario remains firmly within the realm of possibility. Let us not forget former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s attempt to sack Army Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf by not allowing his plane to land in 1999. In response, Musharraf initiated a coup against Sharif’s government, placed him under house arrest, and formally indicted him on charges of hijacking, kidnapping, attempted murder, and treason. Musharraf then assumed power as chief executive, became president and remained in power for the next nine years.

Don’t hold your breath for this "counter-coup" scenario to unfold this time around. While Army chief of staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani does face criticism from senior military leadership and lower ranks for allowing a corrupt and inefficient civilian leadership to remain in place, he is less activist-minded than other military chiefs. His primary goal remains to keep the military visibly out of politics and improve the domestic image of the military. Ousting Zardari for his alleged involvement in "Memogate" would circumvent the judicial investigation underway, unleash public criticism of military interference, and confirm what the world has already concluded: that the military runs the show in Pakistan and is paving the path for an eventual return to dictatorship. While the counter-coup scenario is always plausible for Pakistan, it is less likely with the current cast of characters.  

As weak as Zardari appears now, it’s also important to realize that no one in Pakistan ever thought he would last this long. Before coming to power, he was known as "Mr. 10 Percent," having served two prison sentences for seeking financial kickbacks from government contracts, corruption and misuse of public funds during the tenure of his wife, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Other allegations against him range from conspiracy to murder, kidnapping, extortion, money laundering, and questions about the validity of his educational background. This is hardly the profile of a president who would prove adroit beyond expectations at keeping together a coalition government known for its opportunists, concession-seekers, and obstructionists.

The weakness of Zardari’s position was best exemplified by the frequent departures of his Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) coalition partner, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), from the government in protest of specific policies, including fuel price hikes and imposition of a general sales tax, only to return later once specific demands were met. Zardari’s July 2010 decision to grant Army Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani a three-year extension of his term was widely perceived as a move to neutralize pressure from the military, which was increasingly impatient with the government’s corruption and incompetence.       

Perhaps it is his proclivity for deal making that has kept him afloat, but this can only last so long in a country plagued by serious challenges that are only getting worse. Macroeconomic risks are expected to accelerate in 2012, with the currency facing rising inflation and weak growth prospects. Relations with the United States are likely to be just as dismal next year, especially when it comes to the Pakistani military’s national security priorities. Zardari undoubtedly faces pressure to both placate the security establishment while also preventing a complete rupture in diplomatic relations with the United States. Reconciling opposing differences on Afghanistan and counterterrorism, and mending the periodic ad hoc crises that stem from this dissonance is proving increasingly difficult for both governments. Big questions also remain about Pakistan’s domestic security. The government made some inroads this year towards neutralizing anti-state Pakistani Taliban groups, but no one is sure how these Islamist elements will respond to the government once the United States begins drawing down its troops in Afghanistan. For example, will their political demands be aligned with the Afghan Taliban — traditionally supported by elements of the Pakistani intelligence services — in the formal reconciliation process that the United States and Afghanistan hope to launch?

With problems like these, Pakistan doesn’t need the added burdens of "Memogate" or doubts about Zardari’s health. But these issues are part of the civil-military imbalance that defines the fabric of the country and will remain part of the political landscape for the time being. For Pakistan’s sake, let’s hope the current civilian leadership can avoid the military coups and votes of no confidence of the past, and last until the next general elections in 2013. But what if it doesn’t? Who will be there to assume the charge?  

In a scenario where Zardari vacates the presidency before his term is up, the chairman of the Senate, currently PPP stalwart Farook Naek, would act as president until a new one can be elected. Given the PPP’s strength in parliament and provincial assemblies, it is possible that the overall government could remain intact and with only the president being replaced. Either way, an election for president can be held no later than 30 days from when the president steps down, with the new president chosen by members of the Senate, National Assembly, and provincial assemblies. The government would likely elect a consensus candidate who is acceptable to both civilian and military establishments. This week’s rumor mill already posited Zardari’s son and PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto as a possible replacement for his father. But the 23-year-old Bilawal falls well short of the constitutionally mandated age requirement of 45. While there is a low probability that the government will bend the rules to accommodate him, Bhutto’s name will remain in the mix, given the long legacy of dynastic politics in Pakistan. Presuming that Zardari’s illness is just that, and he has some political life left in him, it may be more constructive to look ahead to the potential challengers to the throne in the general elections, tentatively scheduled for 2013.

The strongest opposition actor is former Prime Minister Sharif, president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Sharif continues to rally his base in Punjab with his "Go, Zardari, Go" (read, "get lost") sloganeering. As a two-time prime minister once deposed by the military, Sharif by far has the most governing experience of the potential candidates, but his platform is standard Pakistani political boilerplate, criticizing the government for its economic mismanagement, corruption, and unholy alliance with the United States. As a conservative, he is known for his past links to the Taliban and close alliance with Saudi Arabia, making him a potentially controversial candidate for some of Pakistan’s international partners. Sharif’s historically tense relations with the military call into question his ability to forge a national security agenda. Working in his favor are his efforts to improve relations with India, which resonate positively with segments of Pakistan’s business elite seeking to benefit from improved bilateral trade. However, Sharif faces the inherent contradiction that his home state, Punjab, continues to be home to anti-India militant groups, allegedly patronized by the state.

Sharif’s campaigning to date, however, has been somewhat overshadowed by former international cricket star Imran Khan’s emergence as a political force and the growing popularity of his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), among the urban youth in Punjab. Many attribute Khan’s recent spike in popularity to some level of support from the security establishment, while others believe that the Pakistani people are simply hungry for an outsider alternative to corrupt establishment politicians. Khan’s public calls for politicians to declare their financial assets are no doubt welcome among his growing base, as are his extensive social work and philanthropic activities. Also, like Sharif, he is running on a conservative platform, often putting him in the category of a pro-Taliban or anti-American politician. A pro-Taliban characterization creates more risk for Khan among an electorate that has seen thousands of people die at the hand of Pakistani Taliban attacks. At the same time, his criticism of U.S. policies in Afghanistan is welcomed by large segments of the population. More importantly, Khan is a blank slate when it comes to Pakistan’s key foreign policy issues — Afghanistan, India, and the United States. Even though he recently acquired former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi as a PTI convert, Khan may not be able to face sustained scrutiny of his foreign-policy inexperience. He may win a few seats in the next election, but he will not sweep them as many speculate.

Someone who has even less chance of success is former President Pervez Musharraf. Since leaving the presidency in 2008 under impeachment threats, Musharraf went into exile in Britain and has kept busy on the U.S. and British lecture circuits. His public opinions on Pakistan’s relations with India, the United States, and Afghanistan have caused controversy in the region and the United States. For example, in 2009, Musharraf admitted to using U.S. military aid to strengthen defenses against India, even though the money was designated for counterinsurgency efforts to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda. His comments confirmed lingering suspicions in India and the U.S. Congress about Pakistan’s misuse of aid funds. In 2010, he founded his own political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, and announced intentions to return to political life in Pakistan, despite the lingering threat of prosecution on charges of treason and conspiracy to murder Benazir Bhutto. Musharraf may still be too fresh from battle for a smooth return, but for now he shares the limelight with Zardari, Khan, and Sharif.             

No one candidate, however, stands well poised to speak to the key foreign-policy issues that will have to be addressed if Pakistan is to achieve peace and stability over the next several years: peace in Afghanistan, relations with the United States, security with India. Like many candidates in elections all over the world, those in Pakistan prefer to echo domestic sentiment to foreign policy and rally the community around a common enemy — real or imagined.

Campaign rhetoric and the subsequent government transition will undoubtedly create anxiety and anticipation in the United States, India, and Afghanistan, all governments who will be closely analyzing the professed platforms of the likes of Zardari, Khan, Sharif, and Musharraf. Security developments in the region will continue to deteriorate, with Pakistan at the center of them. As of now, Pakistan’s next wave of civilian leaders has nothing new to offer in terms of a grand security bargain with the region or the United States. But expecting as much is like putting the cart before the horse — a great deal must occur in the meantime — the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan; political negotiations with the Taliban; rapprochement with India on Kashmir; and the list goes on. Presuming that Zardari has some fight left in him, however, Pakistan still has a long way to go in its election season. It’s best we all sit back, relax, and enjoy the show while the truth continues to unfold.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Senior South Asia Fellow at New America. She served as Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010 – 2011.

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