Asif Ali Zardari empowered the parliament during his presidential tenure. However, there are those who believe that he weakened the Pakistan Peoples Party
Asif Ali Zardari never wanted to become the president. But that was until he met Nawaz Sharif soon after the Pakistan Peoples Party won the 2008 election. Later, he would surprise his core team by announcing his decision to run for presidency.
Zardari will be remembered as the president who, in the spirit of parliamentary democracy, encouraged and helped the parliament transfer important powers from the office of president to that of the prime minister. These included the chair of the National Command Authority.
He never became the popular politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or Benazir Bhutto were but he certainly learnt – some may argue, even mastered – the art of possibilities. Having long been accused of corruption as Mr Ten Percent and remained in jail for many years, being elected president was no mean feat even if some of his critics said he sought the office on account of the immunity from prosecution that went with it.
The story of his rise to presidency goes back to 2008. A close associate told this scribe that Zardari had surprised even his advisers when he disclosed that he had decided to run for president as he believed that the office could be used by the establishment to destabilise the PPP government. He told an aide that Sharif too wanted to be president and had offered to extend support to the PPP in the formation of the government. Zardari had other ideas.
“When Mr Zardari decided to become the president, he surprised some of us. I asked him how could we have both the PM and the president from the same province. He said you don’t know what I know. So, I kept quiet,” he said.
Perhaps, Zardari had sensed something after the meeting with Nawaz Sharif.
I interviewed him for a private TV channel before he announced his candidature and after the resignation of Gen Musharraf. Before the interview, he took me aside. “What do you say: should I or should I not?” I said it was of course up to him and his party. I started the interview by asking him whether I was interviewing the future head of the government. He replied, “One of the party workers will lead the government.”
Remarkably, while Zardari succeeded in making the presidency ‘toothless’, he also managed to keep control over all crucial decisions taken by the prime minister during his tenure. He also kept a tight grip on the party following the assassination of its charismatic leader, Benazir Bhutto.
Though he never became the popular politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or Benazir Bhutto were, he certainly learnt – some may argue, even mastered – the art of possibilities.
Former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani is often credited with forging a consensus on the 18th Amendment. Several party men however say Zardari was the mastermind behind this coup.
In the case of deposed judges, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani was in favour of immediate restoration of the judges, including Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. However, Zardari was reluctant till Nawaz Sharif announced the ‘long march’ and the PML-N withdrew its ministers from the federal cabinet. Gillani was also not in favour of imposing governor’s rule in the Punjab. When the situation became serious, he warned Zardari that things could get out of control. When Dr Shoaib Suddle, the then Intelligence Bureau chief, gave a similar report, Zardari agreed but wanted a guarantee that Sharif would end the march. The guarantee came from Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The government then reinstated Justice Chaudhry as chief justice of Pakistan and the crisis was averted.
Despite being constitutionally powerless, Zardari was always calling the shots. This was also true following the Abbottabad raid.
During his tenure, Zardari managed to get secure all the key positions for his party. These included the prime minister, the National Assembly speaker and the Senate chairperson. He was also able to persuade the PML-N to join in the federal cabinet. It was not an easy decision for the PML-N members to take oath from Gen Musharraf but Zardari managed to convince them.
Zardari also claims credit for renaming the NWFP as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Awami National Party, in particular, described this as historic.
Both the PPP and the PML-N did not want the president to have the power to dissolve the National Assembly and sack the president. It was in this backdrop that in 1997, the PML-N, had removed Article 58-2(b) from the constitution. The PPP had backed the PML-N on this issue.
In 1993, when Benazir Bhutto became the prime minister, she had nominated one of her trusted associates, Farooq Leghari, as president. All was well till Leghari developed differences with Zardari, and once even complained about him to Bhutto. But his grievances were not addressed. When Mir Murtaza Bhutto was killed in 1996, the relationship between the presidency and the PM House was already strained. Benazir Bhutto soon sensed that her man was no longer to be trusted.
PPP sources say some quarters were never happy about the way the presidency was made ‘toothless’. The recent debate over the presidential system and the criticism of the parliamentary system should be seen in that backdrop.
Zardari certainly empowered the parliament during his tenure as the president but there are those who believe that he weakened the Pakistan Peoples Party, once the most powerful party in the country.
In 2015, some of the top party leaders, including Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, Qamar Zaman Kaira and Nadeem Afzal Chan, advised Zardari to hand over the reins to Bilawal Bhutto and to either retire from politics or be less visible. But he continued to hold power, not only as party co-chairman but also as president of Pakistan Peoples Party-Parliamentarians.
Zardari wants to see his son become the prime minister. The challenge for Bilawal Bhutto Zardari lies in the fact that the party he heads is quite different from the PPP of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto days.
The writer is a journalist and analyst with GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets at @MazharAbbasGEO