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Return of a political deal-maker

In addition to hopes of better, smoother civil-military relations with the new army chief and the head of ISI, handpicked by the prime minister, what other major development will tell the new year apart from 2016?

To me, the planned entry to the National Assembly of former president and PPP boss Asif Ali Zardari will rank with the most significant developments as 2017 will be the final year before elections are called. He made the announcement on his return after 18 months of self-exile.

Of course, considerable media interest will also be generated by the first-time presence of his son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the party chairman, in parliament. Father and son are expected to announce the details of their by-elections for the Benazirabad (Nawabshah) and Larkana National Assembly seats soon.

Zardari’s planned parliament entry will rank as among the most significant developments of 2017. Many commentators have lamented that Mr Zardari’s return to the PPP’s front line (though who would believe that in self-exile he wasn’t calling most of the shots) would stifle his son’s attempt to stamp his authority on the party.

These commentators may have a point, but was the younger leader making inroads to win back the support lost in Punjab, for example? The answer, given the various by-election results, would be a resounding no. Of course, one isn’t even referring to the local bodies elections, for in those the dynamics are totally different to national and provincial assembly polls.

Punjab paints a bleak picture for the PPP as the party now seems a million miles away even from its halfway decent 2008 performance, mainly because it seems to have suffered irreparable damage from the media campaign during its tenure, which demolished its credibility and painted it as a corrupt entity interested only in fattening the coffers of its leaders.

Sindh, on the other hand, has always been a happy hunting ground for the PPP. Despite criticism of its governance and lack of attention to issues of public import, the exiled PPP leader has been working his magic on the major political families of the province who hold the key to various constituencies in rural Sindh.

The result is that the only worthwhile opposition party challenging the PPP in a handful of rural Sindh constituencies, the PML-Functional led by the Pir of Pagara, is crumbling like a house of cards with most, if not all, its notable leaders and elected representatives making a beeline for photo ops of handshakes with Mr Zardari, whether in Dubai or London, and joining the party.

The Rangers operation in Karachi targeting the MQM in particular and eroding the London-controlled muscle of the party will also mean that some Karachi seats will be up for grabs, apart from those in overwhelming Mohajir-majority areas; others could see parties such as the PTI and PPP making an impression.

The PPP leader’s return followed a phone conversation with army chief Gen Bajwa when Mr Zardari called to felicitate him on assuming one of the most powerful offices in the country. He must feel that if corruption charges decimated his party in Punjab then the Panama Papers leaks about the Sharifs won’t leave them unscathed in their power base either.

To me, his return, even when top aides/business associates such as Dr Asim Hussain and Mr Anwar Majeed are under pressure from the paramilitary Rangers-led action in Sindh and trouble could be just one step away from him, must be due to his reading of Punjab politics.

There is no doubt that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N look formidable in their power bastion. Even then, one look at the various by-elections would suggest that the party isn’t invincible. Its victory margins, despite enjoying all the advantages of having the administration in its firm grip, are way too narrow for it to assume an unassailable edge.

This isn’t to say that the PPP has caused the PML-N any worry. No. Its challenger, and the prime one in each case, has been Imran Khan’s PTI. While the jury will still be out in the case of many south Punjab constituencies it’s clear that in the rest of the province, while the PML-N may have the loyalties of those seen as the front runners, the close runners-up are looking elsewhere.

The difference in the wealth of the incumbents and aspirants, at least in the more affluent central and northern Punjab districts, is marginal and the latter attribute the edge their rivals have to being in power. Thus, they aspire for it too. And, since there is little to no opportunity in the PML-N for them, many are flocking to the PTI.

This creates a scenario where Asif Ali Zardari sees opportunities. He doesn’t seem to care much that he is seen and decried as one of the most corrupt politicians in the country. If he did he wouldn’t unabashedly travel in a ‘Bahria Town’ executive jet provided by that sharp ‘developer’ who turns large tracts of land (regardless of how the land is acquired from its rightful owners) into gold mines for himself and his business associates.

Being in parliament and spending time in Islamabad will enable him to establish personal contacts with all the main political parties and leaders, besides sections of the so-called establishment. He is likely to seek a more level playing field in terms of the set-up for the next election in Punjab.

Closer to elections, there might be opportunities for alliance formations or at least possibilities for cooperation on a seat-to-seat basis. As things stand, it seems unlikely that Imran Khan’s PTI, with its disdain for corruption, will seek the cooperation of the PPP in anything beyond its support to mount pressure on the PML-N in the wake of the Panama case.

But imagine a scenario where the PTI makes even small inroads into the PML-N support base in Punjab and retains its hold over KP, while the PPP turns in a healthy performance in Sindh, as it picks up the odd seat in Balochistan and even KP, making a coalition possible.

Admittedly, a lot of assumptions are being made here and each one could be wrong. However, if even a few turn out to be correct, the man seen by many as the shrewdest political wheeler-dealer around could come into his own.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Abbas Nasir, "Return of a political deal-maker," Dawn. 2016-12-31.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Civil-Military relations , Media campaign , Mohajir-majority areas , Corruption , Corrupt politicians , Bahria Town , Panama case , National Assembly , Asif Ali Zardari , Bilawal Bhutto , Asim Hussain , Anwar Majeed , Nawaz Sharif , PPP , MQM , PTI , PML-N