Controversies galore

March 17, 2024

As a partisan president, driven by his leader, Dr Alvi’s presidency remained surrounded by controversies

Controversies galore

Pakistan’s thirteenth president Dr Arif Alvi had an eventful tenure. In a country lacking political predictability, his biggest achievement was staying in the Presidency for five and a half years – six months longer than his mandated term on account of the absence of the electoral college to elect his successor.

President Alvi recognises that he didn’t achieve much. He led in some welfare work and helped reduce expenses by not taking many foreign tours. His biggest failure for many was his inability to bring down the political polarisation or to stop controversial ordinances from becoming laws. Dr Alvi reportedly promulgated more than 70 ordinances during the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s tenure, from August 2018 to April 2022.

The former president was lucky to get six extra months in the highest office of the country. But, as he told me in an interview halfway through his tenure, he is a simple man and doesn’t think modest people like him leave behind significant legacies. Under his watch, the Presidency remained mired in controversy.

During some episodes, the former dentist from Karachi seemed not to be in control of even the presidency. He caused a controversy last August when he denied having signed two crucial bills, accusing his staff of overriding his authority. “As God is my witness, I did not sign Official Secrets Amendment Bill, 2023 and Pakistan Army Amendment Bill, 2023 as I disagreed with these laws,” Arif Alvi announced in a post on social media platform X, after the government had notified that both the bills had become laws.

Dr Alvi, a man of substance and intellect, though, still thinks being the president was better than being a federal minister. “The presidency opens more doors for you. It gets you more access,” he had told me. In a democratic setup, a president is supposed to uphold the constitution under all circumstances. It was under his domain that elections to first, a provincial assembly, and then, the National Assembly were delayed beyond the constitutional deadlines. He did make some noise and issued some unilateral orders but with little effect. Maybe the ceremonial nature of the office was to blame for this rather than him.

But he was politically active. His unflinching loyalty to the jailed former prime minister Imran Khan made it hard for him to be non-partisan. To be fair to him, Asif Ali Zardari and Mamnoon Hussain were also loyal to their parties when it mattered most. But since his leader Imran Khan and their party, the PTI, came to power with the slogans of tabdeeli and Naya Pakistan, they were expected to be different. Alvi, too, couldn’t abandon or hide his political tilt.

The latest crime on his charge-sheet was his refusal to convene the National Assembly within 21 days after the general elections. Like the PTI, his excuse was that since the reserved seats had not been allocated, he could not convene a session of ‘an incomplete assembly’.

His opponents cannot forget that he proceeded on sick leave, apparently to avoid administering the oath to Shahbaz Sharif, an elected prime minister. He also refused to attend the swearing-in of the federal cabinet. But he administered Shahbaz Sharif his latest oath. So, was he really too sick the last time or has something changed?

The controversial bills, which he claims he never assented to, gave authorities the power to prosecute people accused of attacking the State and its Armed Forces in military courts. Dozens of PTI workers and leaders were charged under the Army Act for their alleged involvement in May 9 violence.

Election winning political parties generally allocate the president’s seat to one of their most loyal members. But loyalty alone is not sufficient. After the PPP debacle with Farooq Leghari, the nomination of Mamnoon Hussain in 2013 seemed to highlight the merit of moderate ambition.

Dr Arif Alvi is no doubt very loyal to Imran Khan. That, it seems, stopped other political parties from reaching out to him on political issues. He, too, did not do much to break the ice with rival parties. The presidency was not seen being as a bridge to other political forces. As head of state, Dr Alvi failed to build consensus among political parties on major issues like elections.

But his political career is far from over. He is ambitious and politically active. This could be seen from his press conference soon after relinquishing the presidency. He claims that he did his best to make sure that the constitution was followed. He has no qualms about his association with one party – the PTI. We are bound to see more of him now that he is out of the confines of Awan-i-Sadr.

Many PTI workers are not satisfied with his performance. The biggest reason behind this possibility is the breakdown of the party and his inability to do anything about it, despite holding one of the highest offices in the country.

Dr Alvi has condemned the May 9 violence and claimed that he had tried his best to build bridges between the powerful military and his party, but failed. He told me that prior to his arrest he used to talk to Imran Khan on almost a daily basis. It seems that he was still unable to change Khan’s or the military establishment’s mind.

The bills he claims he never assented to, gave authorities the power to prosecute people accused of attacking the State and its Armed Forces in military courts. Dozens of PTI workers and leaders were then charged under the Army Act for their alleged involvement in May 9 violence.

He has been pushing for cooperation between the military and his party. If the government and the military could successfully fight Covid-19, he asks, then why can they not cooperate on other fronts. He denies that Imran Khan ever wanted to make Gen Faiz Hameed the new army chief. “He used to tell me that he will decide the matter on merit.”

PTI’s promise of turning buildings such as the Presidency and the Prime Minister’s House into universities too did not materialise under him. He did initially open the building to general public, but then failed to keep up with the decision after Covid-19. He failed also to keep the place free of controversy.

Dr Alvi is a fighter. I doubt that he ever thought about resigning. In a way it is good that he remained at the Presidency. Else, post-May 9, he may have ended up addressing a dreadfully orchestrated press conference, like so many of his party colleagues.

The writer, a journalist for 33 years, has been an editor at the BBC in Pakistan for over two decades. Currently, he is the managing editor at Independent Urdu

Controversies galore