Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Zardari hanging by a thread

With only 15 months into his rule, Zardari is facing an existential crisis with his popularity plummeting to new lows, rising military praetorianism and an emboldened opposition . Added to this is a Taliban insurgency targeting civilians on an almost daily basis and a military offensive in South Waziristan producing no results. And let's not forget about the death of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO); an amnesty bill protecting Zardari, Interior Minister Rehman Malik and 8000 others from legal action or the calls for relinquishing the powers of the 17th constitutional amendment; allows him to dismiss the prime minister and suspend the national assembly (credit goes to Musharraf). Zardari is toxic, and everyone knows it.With Gilani maintaining a strict hands off policy  and Altaf's MQM backing the opposition, his days are numbered.

Excepting a miracle, the future for Zardari is bleak. Considering Pakistan's political climate it is likely that Zardari will be forced from the limelight; either due to pressure from the opposition (military, PML-N, religious conservatives) or by his own party; Pakistan People's Party (PPP)  or both. This is already clear with his giving up control of the country's nuclear arsenal to Gilani. Zardari's departure from the political spotlight may have major implications for both Pakistan and the PPP.  Here are some possible outcomes:

a)Zardari remains as President with majority of the power(notwithstanding the NRO, control of nuclear arsenal and the 17th constitutional amendment)

In previous political crises surrounding the PPP from the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry to ceding Swat to Taliban control through agreements, Zardari  has managed to hold onto power despite dips in popularity and vociferous political opposition. It is possible that Zardari may manage to hold onto power once again.  This time, however around Zardari does not have widespread support within the PPP; which was the case in these prior incidents.

Probability: 29%. Zardari has proven to be tenacious time and time again and it won't be surprising if he somehow manages to hold on. If Zardari holds onto power, it will be only if Gilani and other members of the PPP give him support. Considering that Gilani has publicly distanced himself from Zardari and asserted his political power, it is highly unlikely that he will support any move Zardari makes to remain in power.

b) Zardari remains as President on a symbolic level; power shifts to Gilani

Gilani is the only high ranking member of the PPP that has yet to be embroiled in any recent political scandals. In addition, he has somehow remained unscathed from the public backlash surrounding the suicide attacks and has not been targeted by the political opposition. In recent weeks, Gilani has also benefited directly from Zardari's waning power. He now has control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and enjoys greater support within his party and the opposition. With Gilani in control, the denouement of Zardari need not mark the end of the PPP. It may in fact provide an opportunity for the PPP to shed its image as a political legacy of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and transform into a more egalitarian party. In addition, Gilani may be able to keep praetorianism at bay by improving relations between the military and civilian government. Since he possesses the greatest credibility among the PPP leadership, he may also be able to deal more effectively with periphery provinces (Balochistan, NWFP).

Probability: 40%. It is very unlikely that Zardari will hand quietly hand over major political decisions. Since he was married to Benazir Bhutto, he considers the presidency as his right and will be unwilling to become a symbolic figure. On the other hand,  Zardari is a liability for the PPP at this point. Gilani and other senior PPP members may sideline him from political power if they consider him a threat to their party's survival in the future. This outcome depends on Zardari's unpopularity and the desperation of high ranking PPP officials.

c) Zardari refuses to step back, splits PPP along the lines of loyalty.

Many among the PPP ranks consider the party as political inheritance of the Bhutto clan. Therefore there is a high possibility that if Gilani attempts to wrest control of the party from Zardari, there may be an internal conflict between his supporters and those of Zardari leading to a split similar to PML-N and PML-Q. If this does happen, the political clout of the PPP will weaken resulting in a power vacumn at a national level. A PPP split will also mark the end of national politics (PPP is the only party that can gather support across ethnic and sectarian lines). Considering the level of animosity that exists between different ethnicities at the political level,  PPP's absence could possibly result in further destabilization along these lines. In addition, the lack of consensus among the democratic establishment may result in unstable minority governments.

Probability: 30%.  Zardari has the loyalty of many PPP supporters. He is aware of the  importance of the Bhutto name and has used his marriage with Benazir Bhutto and their son to support his claim to PPP leadership. However, his relationship to the Bhutto clan is through marriage not blood, which may be detrimental when appealing to die hard Bhutto supporters. This may be used by Gilani to justify sidelining Zardari from the PPP. Then again, Zardari is much closer to the Bhutto clan than Gilani.

d) Zardari resigns; Gilani takes over

Gilani may persuade senior members of the PPP into acknowledging Zardari as a liability to the party and a threat to its future in Pakistani politics. If he succeeds, Zardari may be pressured into resigning and taking a backseat in national politics. The removal of Zardari from PPP's leadership could result in the transformation of the PPP from a feudal party to a one with greater political access (at least for the non-Bhutto PPP members)

Probability: <5%. Zardari possess a huge ego and there is no way he will step down voluntarily, especially since he has publicly stated otherwise. No amount of political maneuvering will make him give up his position.