Asif Ali Zardari, the first elected president of Pakistan, will make history when he bows out of office today, the first president of Pakistan to have completed five full years in a country that has lived under the shadow of military dictatorship for more than half of its independent existence.
At a farewell lunch in Islamabad thrown in his honour by the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, Zardari stressed that he would return the compliment that Nawaz Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), had paid to his government when it was in power till May, by refusing to be tempted by other forces.
“We will strengthen your government and Pakistan for the next five years. We will only do politics when you announce the general election. Not now, as the country faces grave challenges,” Zardari said.
He was referring to the omnipresent threat that elected Pakistani politicians have always faced, of being overthrown by the all-powerful Army, or by being cajoled by them to do things their way. To Zardari’s credit, he walked a fine line and publicly pushed the envelope in favour of the democratic temperament.
Certainly, Zardari’s comments must reassure Nawaz Sharif, whose newly elected government is facing a plethora of challenges both within and without. Most importantly, there is the challenge from terrorist groups like the Tehreek-i- Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that have become so powerful under the patronage of Pakistan’s army and its intelligence agencies and are now daring to bite the hands that feed it; other ethnic insurgent groups like the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and the Sipah-i- Sahaba focus on ethnic killings, especially targeting Shias
The spectre of suicide bombings and massacres in every Pakistani province has become so rampant that it has considerably demoralised public opinion inside Pakistan.
Moreover, Pakistan is well nigh broke. On its western border, in the province of Khyber-Pathtoonkhwa that is run by Imran Khan’s party, several political leaders have made it clear that they are not about to challenge the Afghan Taliban.
On the east with India, violations across the Line of Control and the retributory deaths of Indian soldiers as well as Pakistani villagers has created serious tensions with Delhi.
And yet, Zardari’s greatest contribution to Pakistani politics has been the assertion of the democratic process. Having become president after the 2008 elections that were held in the shadow of the assassination of his wife and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari has successfully completed a balancing act that involved stroking the all-powerful Pakistan Army’s ego while edging them, slowly, out of the power paradigm, trying to restore a semblance of normalcy with India especially after the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and reinventing the relationship with America.
It may be argued that Pakistan’s relationships with both the US and India continued to be authorised by the Army – which, for example, shut of NATO access to Afghanistan through Pakistan even while allowing US drones to take off from Pakistani territory but the truth is that Zardari refused to give up trying to build bridges, especially with India.
For example, he tried hard to get prime minister Manmohan Singh to come to Pakistan, but when the PM couldn’t get together an argument in favour of such a visit, Zardari made the excuse of wanting to pay his respects at the famous Sufi shrine in Ajmer.
Naturally, the Indian leadership couldn’t let him return without giving him lunch – he got his way.
But Zardari’s biggest contribution to Pakistani politics was the restoration of Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution and the passage of the 18th amendment, which removed the power of the President to dissolve Parliament unilaterally. By substantially giving up his own powers, Zardari effectively transformed Pakistan’s politics from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic.
And when his government’s five-year term came to an end, Zardari pressed for elections on time, seeing to it that they were held in May, that voter lists were refreshed, that the media was allowed full play – during his tenure, Pakistan’s media became a powerful watchdog against social and political aberrations – and that when the PPP lost, power was handed over to Nawaz Sharif and the PML(N) without any delay. That in itself was a historic process.
There are enough stories about Asif Ali Zardari’s alleged corruption before he became president, when he was commonly known as “Mr Ten Percent”, and during his tenure. In fact, his own prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had to be sacrificed when he refused to write a letter to the Swiss banks, as ordered by Pakistan’s own Supreme Court.
Certainly, as Asif Zardari vacates the President’s House and returns to Karachi or Lahore, it is unlikely he will step out of the limelight. He has been used to it, as Benazir Bhutto’s husband, and in his own right. Certainly, as co-chairman of the PPP, alongside his son Bilawal, Pakistan can expect to have a colourful Opposition leader.