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Zardari’s strategy

Pakistan’s election activity is picking up pace as the country enters its final days of campaigning. Political pundits have begun forecasting the number of seats each party is likely to win with several independent local analysts insisting that the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) remains a political force, albeit perhaps not in the lead.

Others, particularly foreign analysts see PML (N) in the lead (a forecast that local analysts endorse), followed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), labelled as the ‘dark horse’ thereby providing cover to their analyses in case of a dramatic upset by Imran Khan with PPP trailing in third place.

Some have begun forecasting the political demise of President Asif Ali Zardari by arguing that once his party is out of power, he would find it very difficult to retain his position of authority in the party. The Sonia Gandhi syndrome would apply, they argue, when Congress (I) dismissed her from party politics after it lost general elections. It is only after the party consistently failed to win elections that she, as the Gandhi family representative, was invited back into the fold. But it was only when Sonia Gandhi gave a win to the party that she was able to dominate it once again.

The President’s position today is different to Sonia Gandhi’s on three counts. First, he will retain the office of the President till 6th September this year and the pressure he is able to exert on politics would be commensurate to the strength of the elected government. If, as all surveys show, no political party emerges as a clear winner and a coalition is necessary to form a government then who would be better placed and astute enough to cobble a coalition than the President for after all the PPP was indisputably the major player during the past five years regardless of the fact that the party occupied less than 36 percent of the National Assembly seats. Cynics and political opponents alike have accused President Zardari of catering to the greed of those politicians he negotiated with to ensure that the PPP retained all important posts including the posts of President, the Prime Minister, the President’s supporters and those crediting him for completing a full five-year assembly term refer to him as politically much more astute than his closest rivals namely Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. This defence has merit as both Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have shown a reluctance to engage with other parties. While PML (N), the more experienced in the country’s politics out of the two parties, has tried to make inroads in Sindh through a coalition, yet it remains a question mark whether either of these two leaders would be able or indeed inclined towards a coalition if the situation arises.

Second, the President is unlikely to lose Sindh. In short, he can rule from the financial hub of the country Karachi and therefore his powers to extend favours to party loyalists as well as coalition partners would remain though considerably reduced. Additionally, Karachi also is the hub to the bulk of the country’s exports and imports and hence its importance as the trade link with the rest of the world would allow anyone who rules the city considerable clout. This clout would of course be reduced if Karachi, as is its tradition, remains the stronghold of MQM and MQM is offered and opts to accept a role in the federal government by whichever party successfully forms the next government. At this point it is fairly safe to assume that the MQM would prefer to do business with its old ally PPPP rather than with any new allies. This assumption is supported by the recent two trilateral joint press conferences; however, while both MQM and ANP are visibly impacted by the Taliban terror attacks the PPP appears to be lackadaisical in its election campaign – even in Punjab where there have been no election related terror attacks. And with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari having left the country for security reasons it is unclear whether the devoted jiyala would be motivated to come out and vote for the party when two of the three displayed individuals in all advertisements are deceased and the third is out of the country.

Third and finally the President has given his party a massive advantage even before elections: the 41 senate seats held by President Zardari loyalists out of a total of 104. And if one includes ANP 12, MQM 7 and PML (Q) 5 then the number dramatically rises to 65. Thus the biggest contribution to his party’s election campaign may not be what President Zardari’s deceased wife and father-in-law brought to an election campaign namely their tremendous charisma and popularity (which was at least twenty to thirty points ahead of the party’s popularity in contrast to President Zardari who has consistently scored 14 percent or around 4 to 5 percent less than the party in popularity polls); but he has given his party dominance in the Senate and that is no mean feat. Sceptics however maintain that the 65 senate seats may come in useful when the President launches his own re-election bid.

The Economist in its latest issue made some unkind remarks about President Zardari: “It’s (PPP’s) figurehead Asif Ali Zardari, who was propelled into office after the murder of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, is widely despised as corrupt, isolated and ineffective.” The President’s supporters may take strong exception to these words however so would an impartial analyst to at least two claims. First and foremost Asif Ali Zardari is by no means the figure head of the party. He remains PPPP’s unchallenged leader and has been taking all important decisions since Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. He has of course gotten rid of those who never owed their loyalty to him, and Naheed Khan and Safdar Abbasi are prime examples, and brought many a recalcitrant and/or principled party member down to heel and examples include Amin Fahim, Sherry Rehman etc. And secondly while President Zardari may have headed a weak government yet his party position has been strong and he has never been isolated – neither with respect to coalition partners, nor with respect to the establishment which if WikiLeaks is to be believed prefers him to Nawaz Sharif.

However in Pakistan there are many prospective candidates who are (i) transients, or those who join a party to win elections (if the candidate perceives that the party has a higher popularity rating than him/her in his constituency) and get a ministry; (ii) those refused a party ticket by the party of first choice which accounts for his/her seeking a ticket from another party failing which many stand as independents, an example being Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali, (iii) those who have a leg in each camp or their relatives are disbursed in several parties to ensure access to corridors of power irrespective of which party wins, including Abida Hussain’s family, (iv) those with a confirmed seat because of their personal vote bank based on biradari (ones who are in the strongest position to challenge leadership) and (v) die-hard supporters (and PPP has the largest number though it is unclear whether they have all transferred loyalty to the new PPP leadership).

In case the President can cobble a coalition and rule for another five years those in all of the above categories would be easy to control. If the party cannot form a government then the first ones to be susceptible to positions of authority as a trade-off for their support would be in categories (i) to (iv) which would make a dent in PPP ranks with obvious repercussions on his being able to retain the leadership and exercise unchallenged authority as he has. However this situation would apply only if the two most likely winners namely Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan fail to win enough seats to give them a majority and if they continue to oppose a coalition with other parties, particularly with each other. In that likely event President Zardari would no doubt once again become active in cobbling a coalition government that may in time enable him to pass a vote of no confidence against a sitting prime minister. Thus the game maybe lost due to poor governance, the set maybe lost due to failure to address the concerns of the jiyala with poor turnout relative to other parties’ supporters, but the match would not be over if the parliament is hung.

Anjum Ibrahim, "Zardari’s strategy," Business recorder. 2013-05-06.
Keywords: Political issues , Political relations , Political parties , Political leaders , Political change , Political problems , Karachi issues , President Zardari , Pakistan , PMLN , PPPP