His truce with Qadri virtually ensures the completion of his term, as Pakistan prepares for polls.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari appears set to go down in the country’s history as the first head of a democratically elected Government to complete its full term, without having been destabilised, dismissed or ousted by a military coup. President Zardari has been under constant siege from his hawkish Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and the mercurial Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury. The Chief Justice bears a deep grudge against the President, because of the latter’s disinclination to restore him to office, after he was summarily sacked by President Musharraf in 2007.
The empathy between the Chief Justice and General Kayani goes back to the time when Kayani, as ISI chief, did not harangue the former after his dismissal.While pretending to be a champion of democratic freedoms, Chaudhury had the dubious distinction of being among the first judges to sanctify the military coup by Musharraf in October 1999. He was then Chief Justice of the Baluchistan High Court. While haranguing the elected Government and seeking the arrest of two Prime Ministers, the Chief Justice has tread warily in dealing with serving army officers. Kayani himself has a tainted reputation, even within the ranks of the army.
President Zardari’s troubles were compounded by the mysterious return to Pakistan of Maulana Tahir ul Qadri, a Barelvi cleric, who controls a vast network of charities, running hundreds of schools, colleges, libraries and medical facilities, primarily in the populous army-dominated Punjab Province. A majority of Pakistanis are Barelvis and constitute a powerful, though leaderless and disorganised, vote bank. While Qadri supported the 1999 coup by General Musharraf and was elected to Parliament, he soon found that he was marginalised because of the close links the military had with Wahhabi-oriented groups such as Lashkar e Jhangvi and the Jaish e Mohammed, which periodically target and kill Barelvis and Shias. He obtained political asylum in Canada, leading many to allege that with his strong views against terrorism, he enjoyed CIA and western backing.
Collecting around 30,000 supporters, Qadri undertook a “Long March” to Islamabad, where he demanded that the present “corrupt” Government be replaced by an interim Government, appointed by the Army Chief and the Chief Justice. He also demanded the removal of the highly respected Chief Election Commissioner Justice Fakhruddin Ebrahim. Pakistan’s squabbling political parties got together and rejected Qadri’s demands, while calling for early elections, as mandated by the Constitution. The National Accountability Bureau, investigating the case against the Prime Minister, rejected the Supreme Court’s order for his arrest, stating that investigations in the case were still ongoing.
The Zardari Government and Qadri reached an agreement on January 18, leading to the end of the agitation in Islamabad. While Qadri’s demand for a national government appointed by Kayani and Iftikhar Chaudhri was rejected, the Government agreed that the cleric would be “consulted” in the formation of an interim Government. It remains to be seen how consensus would be reached on the formation of an interim Government, though both major parties — Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (N) — appear agreed that the army must not be allowed to intervene, using the Chief Justice and the likes of Maulana Qadri as proxies.
Preparations for the forthcoming elections are now gathering momentum. The rising inflation, endemic power shortages and allegations of corruption will weigh against President Zardari’s PPP. This is, however, countered by growing anti-Punjabi sentiments in rural Sind, the bastion of the PPP, over the assassination of two Sindhi Prime Ministers Zulfiqar and Benazir Bhutto, purportedly at the hands of the Punjabi military establishment. Bilawal Bhutto has already played on such sentiment. An important card for the ruling PPP and Pakistan Muslim League (Q) Alliance is their support for a separate State of Seraikistan, to be carved out of the Bahawalpur, Dera Ghazi Khan and Multan regions of southern Punjab.
There is alienation in this Seraiki-speaking region against discrimination by Punjabi-speaking rulers from the army-dominated northern Punjab. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N) have opposed this move. They may find themselves at a disadvantage in southern Punjab, against a powerful array of politicians, such as Deputy Prime Minister Pervaiz Elahi and former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.
With 80 per cent of Punjab’s development budget going to the army-dominated North, which also dominates the police and civil services, Seraiki grievances run deep. The PML (N) is seeking alliances with sectarian Barelvi groups to counter the Muhajir-dominated MQM in urban centres such as Karachi and Hyderabad and in Punjab. Imran Khan, the favourite of jihadi and Taliban-oriented outfits and the military establishment, has been losing momentum but is likely to eat into sections of the traditional vote base of the PML (N).
The present scenario can, however, change in the run-up to the elections.
(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)