Former president Asif Ali Zardari has the capacity and capability to give surprises, and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif are well aware of what had happened in Balochistan, particularly. It may not be easy for the PPP leader to match the number game, but if he manages Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the contest will become interesting.
On Wednesday, Zardari politely declined the name of Raza Rabbani as the possible candidate for the Senate chairman by saying “Thank you, I do not want this to happen”. However, many within the PPP think that Raza Rabbani is not out of the race and if the PPP could not manage enough numbers, it may agree on his name.
The PML-N still stands a better chance with 33 votes, and its ally National Party (NP) leader Hasil Bizenjo is confident that they have already got the overall support 54, which is enough to get their nominee elected as the chairman. But, who will their nominee is a big question. Will it be from the PML-N or from Balochistan? Although, the name of Mushahid Hussain Sayed, could be one strong possibility, Sharif could also come with a surprise name.
The PML-N knows what Zardari can do to win the top slot even with 20 party senators. It will be a real test for his political skill and maneuvering. His priority candidate on paper is still Saleem Mandiwalla, followed by Sherry Rehman, but he may have kept yet another name secret as a last resort.
Zardari, on Wednesday, also surprised many when he removed one of his most trusted aides and spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, who made a fiery farewell speech as a senator. Raza Rabbani and Farhatullah Babar are two most powerful voices in the PPP along with Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan and Nadeem Afzal Chang.
Sources said Babar's speech hurt Zardari's game-plan for Senate and general elections as till 2018 polls, he did not want any hard-hitting speeches or statements, which hit the judiciary or the establishment.
Few weeks back, Babar himself offered Zardari to replace him with someone else as his spokesman if his speeches in Senate caused problems for him. He had even suggested few names. Therefore, when on Wednesday, Zardari asked him to step down, he did not waited a minute.
In the past, Zardari had defended Babar and once had even refused former army chief General (retd) Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who asked the former president to replace his spokesman.
Now, Zardari in a bid to fence his differences with the relevant quarters wanted party's dissenting voice on the back seat and that is why Raza Rabbani was not even the automatic choice as nominee for the Senate seat. Sources said it was PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who pleaded the case of Raza.
If Zardari caused an upset and managed support for Saleem Mandiwalla, there is a possibility that he would further sideline Raza Rabbani, knowing well that the former chairman Senate could make more fiery speeches in the Senate, something which he doesn't want at this stage.
Zardari is a man with full of surprises, and he intends to give one in Senate as well. In the next 48 hours, he would ascertain the PPP chances in the race. His crucial and may be decisive deal would be with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), whose 12 crucial votes could play a decisive role in the elections for chairman and deputy chairman.
Zardari has already managed most of the Independent candidates and had already extended his full support to seven senators from Balochistan and their nominee as deputy chairman. Unlike Zardari, PTI Chairman Imran Khan is not only quite predictable but very straight forward as far as his political narrative is concerned. It will be difficult for him to accept the deal with the PPP on chairman Senate. The PTI recently censured the PPP and the PML-N for what they did in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where PTI's 16 MPAs allegedly voted for the PPP and as a result it got two Senate seats, despite having only six MPAs of its own.
Now, if the PTI or Imran allows its senators to vote for the PPP nominee, they would lose moral authority to take action against their own MPAs, who voted for the PPP candidates in the Senate elections.
This can leave the PTI with two choices: One to remain neutral and abstain from chairman’s election and support Attaullah Kakar as deputy chairman; two, they can support Raza Rabbani, as consensus candidate because of his excellent performance in Senate.
Imran wants to keep distance from the PPP and Zardari. But what the PPP can offer or could already have offered to the PTI. It has very little to offer, which has made the PPP or Zardari's game a bid difficult.
Therefore, it’s a tough ask for Zardari this time, despite his success in the first round where he not only manage to get 10, still at least one short in Sindh, surprised many by getting two senators from KP and shocked the PML-N in Balochistan.
The retirement of 18 PPP senators had made the race a bid difficult for the PPP and it could manage 13 senators, which took its total numbers to 20. Though the MQM-P is down as it could manage only one seat in the Senate elections, whereas its four senators retired, even its present strength of five became important in this tight number game. What Zardari or the PPP can offer to the MQM and what decision they will take is also important. A dejected and demoralised MQM did not want any of its five senators to defect and would try to remain intact. But, with the experience of Sindh Assembly, anything is possible.
Zardari has his own style of politics and criticism hardly matters for him. Unlikely some other leading politicians, he knows when to retreat and when to go aggressive. His opponents admitted that he has often proven them wrong and always come out with surprises. Will he surprise Nawaz in the election for Chairman Senate or would himself be surprised, this time?
The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.