Cyril Almeida: An assessment of Asif Ali Zardari’s performance

End of the red, black and green?
By Cyril Almeida
Friday, 03 Apr, 2009


Looking back over his term in office, there is much for Zardari to smile about – File photo.

CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that Asif Zardari will lose his battle with Nawaz Sharif and the PPP will be driven from power sooner or later. The corollary is that Zardari will then lose control of the PPP and the party will fragment.

But will being ousted from power necessarily translate into the PPP splintering? Don’t be so sure. From the perspective of the PPP, Zardari has, hang on to your hats, delivered the goods.

The evidence exists, but there are a couple of prerequisites to assessing it bluntly. First, put on your PPP cap. Next, be realistic. Pakistan’s bare-knuckle politics does not brook such quaint ideas like rigid principles and moral probity. Keep in mind, too, that what qualifies as ‘success’ is relative, both to present circumstances and the past.

BB is worshipped today, but she led the party into the wilderness after her second stint in power. ZAB, the gold standard of the PPP, was pretty good at consolidating power, but had a self-destructive streak. So, with your PPP hat on and expectations duly checked, examine the case for Zardari as leader of the PPP.

Pakistan khappay. From the terrifying darkness of Dec 27, 2007 emerged one, powerful voice that chased away the demons of provincial and ethnic hatred that threatened to overrun the country. That voice was Asif Zardari’s. With Sindh convulsed with rage at yet another of its leaders cut down violently before her time, Zardari stood up and reminded his party’s cadre that Pakistan was still the answer. It was extraordinary, it was statesmanlike, and it was universally embraced.

Zardari has brought his party results. The PPP that went before the electorate on Feb 18, 2008 was Benazir’s PPP, not Zardari’s. Even his unkindest of enemies will not suggest the PPP’s mediocre crop of seats — 91 directly elected — had anything to do with Zardari. But once dealt a weak hand, Zardari played it masterfully. On March 29, 2008 the PPP co-chairman engineered a unanimous vote of confidence in the National Assembly for Yousuf Raza Gilani as the new prime minister — unprecedented in the country’s history.

Perhaps even more astonishingly, Zardari managed to pull off a similar feat in the Senate a year later. With the long march looming and the PML-N leaning more into the lawyers’ camp with every passing day, Zardari still managed to negotiate the uncontested election to all available Senate seats in Sindh and Punjab and most in the NWFP.

Balochistan’s peculiar, non-party politics proved immune as did Fata, but in the main Zardari quietly achieved victory for his party. The PPP is now the largest party in the Senate and has its own man as Senate chairman. All achieved with the minimum of fuss and virtually no mud-slinging or cries of foul play. Check the electoral record, there are few parallels.

Zardari is secular. All generalisations are wrong (!) but there’s much truth to the argument that, for all its declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims, banning alcohol and flirting with the mullahs, the PPP is opposed to religious fundamentalism. Zardari may want to be many things, but amir-ul-momineen is not one of them. The party faithful can at least be sure that Zardari will not steer the PPP towards conservatism.

Zardari has the backing of the Americans. For those in the party who remember their years of irrelevance under Musharraf, when BB would struggle to meet a third-tier US official, this is a boon. Sure, Zardari inherited American support as much as he did the party and he’s managed to squander some of the American goodwill already, but it’s still sizeable and they are still happy to do business with him.

Zardari has kept the money flowing. Foreign inflows slowed down for a while, but they’re picking up again. Soon the old belief that big money inflows only coincide with military rule may have to be done away with. Zardari may have had little to do with the circumstances that have made that possible, but such complexities are beside the point. He has at a minimum ensured we have not become an economic pariah, and with a state hovering on the brink as often as Pakistan is, that is an achievement in itself.

Zardari has the army’s backing. Thanks to Musharraf’s candour, it’s now on the record how poorly the army regards the PPP. It’s never liked the party and never will. Yet, whatever the circumstances, reasons or deals and no matter the hiccups already, the PPP has genuine space to govern on many fronts. Given the wellspring of suspicion against each other in the PPP and army camps, for Zardari to have kept a working truce going is a significant success.

There clearly have been problems with Zardari’s stint in charge though. But leave your PPP cap on and think about them.

First, Punjab. The bid to rule the province was a disaster. The PPP is clearly on the wane in the province. But is Zardari’s fault any more than accelerating a decline that was a long time in the making? Hand on their hearts, few PPP leaders could deny that the party has been losing traction in Punjab even since the heydays of BB. The party has struggled to adapt to a changed electorate in the province, and, for all of Zardari’s bunglings, the tide was probably already irreversible.

Second, Zardari’s advisers. Much is made about the fact that Zardari has surrounded himself with his own people and doesn’t listen to others in the party. But that’s not really the problem. Every new leader, of any party, anywhere in the world, brings in the people he trusts. The PPP has hardly been a paragon of internal democracy in the past. Many in the party cannot have forgotten how they banged their heads against walls trying to convince BB of the damage her husband was causing to the party in the ’90s.

The problem with Zardari’s advisers isn’t that they are his men, but that they are bad advisers. They do need to go. Does that mean though the others in the party will get so sick of waiting to be rid of Zardari’s cronies that they will decide to break away? Unlikely. Zardari’s inner core may be parasites on the party, but history suggests such characters come and go. Remember also that waiting in the wings is young Bilawal, and when his time comes new opportunities will arise in the party.

No doubt there is deep unease within the PPP at Zardari’s leadership. But even if the party is ousted from power, reports of the inevitable death of the PPP as we know it may be greatly exaggerated. (Dawn)