President Zardari: By accident or design? – by Cyril Almeida

MUCH has been said about the Zardari presidency thus far and almost all of it is negative. From anyone other than his acolytes a familiar litany of complaints pours out: he’s too weak; he’s never here; he’s autocratic; he hasn’t a clue about governance; his freewheeling approach to politics is dangerous and destabilising; he’s unpresidential.

And yet, from the point of view of results, Zardari seems pretty successful at the moment. Remember that there were three major issues that confronted the country at the time of the elections in February ’08: militancy, a sinking economy and an uncertain transition to democracy.

Lo and behold, 18 months later, things have stabilised if not improved on each front. For the first time ever the militants have been dealt a serious blow in the north-west and it appears the military operation will switch next to the ground zero of militancy: the Waziristan agencies. Most remarkably, there is a political consensus on the need for such operations and the public and the media appear supportive too.

Economically, the country has taken a pummelling, but after a painful, arguably unnecessary, phase of macro stabilisation the international spigot is being turned on again: money is set to pour into the development sector while the IMF/World Bank/ADB have seemingly been told by the US to back off on insisting on tough targets.

And politically, after the disastrous gambles in Punjab and on the judges’ issue, the storm clouds over the horizon have cleared. With Zardari’s nemeses, CJ Iftikhar and Nawaz Sharif, holding their fire for now, the months ahead look to be relatively plain sailing. Even within the PPP, the murmurs of discontent are lower than ever and the possibility of an imminent en masse rebellion against Zardari appears far-fetched. Don’t be surprised if Aitzaz Ahsan accepts a seat at the table of power one of these days.

So what’s going on? Have Zardari’s detractors been so blinded by the man’s reputation in the past that they haven’t realised a learning curve is at work; that Zardari may be growing into a job — running this country — that would challenge even the best and the brightest? If not quite like an ugly duckling growing into a beloved swan, could Zardari be purposefully hacking his way out of the thicket to emerge bruised and battered but still standing? The people rightly want a leader they can be proud of, but could the qualities needed to steer the country out of the mess it is in require less master orator and brilliant statesman and more huckster and hustler?

Or has Zardari just got very, very lucky, buoyed up by forces that are trying to set the country right and that have left him in place to earn the plaudits for their successes because he’s the least bad option and a lucky beneficiary of happenstance?

Judging that — luck or smarts? — requires going to the heart of power, to know what happens in the meetings behind closed doors, to piece together the story of the Zardari presidency from evidence both public and private. And from there emerges a picture that is very unsettling.

Whether he’s just not interested or simply can’t grasp the basics, Zardari has still not switched gears to governance mode. He sits at the apex of the civilian government pyramid, but the flow of ideas on how to govern and handle the myriad crises afflicting the country come from outside the civilian set-up.

The usual prime suspects — the army and America — along with a group of international actors, the international donor agencies and friendly governments, are the ones who are gently nudging Zardari’s government along. It’s not quite as simple as telling the president what to do. He still makes the decisions, but it’s largely a case of picking from the menu of demands and suggestions and ideas that are placed before him.

Zardari does have one idea of his own: more, more, more money for the government to spend, spend, spend. Frankly, truckloads of cheap money poured into the economy — somewhere, anywhere — at this time isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so pear-shaped has the economy gone over the last year and a half. Having said that, if a large chunk of the money is borrowed money and it’s funnelled into the wrong sectors of the economy, the country will be setting itself up for another painful cycle of boom and bust.

The bigger point though is that a government bereft of ideas at the top is a government vulnerable to being steered by outside forces with interests of their own. Take the issue of militancy. Yes, we are doing the right thing by fighting in the north-west and preparing to go into South Waziristan. But forget the national consensus on the issue, the operation would have been a non-starter had the army not been prepared to fight. So did the government convince the army to fight or did the army decide to fight based on its own security calculations?

There is a world of difference between those two positions going forward. If the army is still completely calling the shots on the militancy issue, we’re no closer to being rid of the wretched good Taliban/bad Taliban distinction. Happily, everyone can and does agree that Maulana Fazlullah and Baitullah Mehsud are bad. Unhappily, there is little evidence that Zardari’s government has any idea about how it can convince the security establishment to go after the ‘good’ militants.

The other side of the coin are US interests. At the top of the Americans’ agenda in Pakistan is taking out what some in our security establishment see as the good militants: the men fighting in Afghanistan. Given a choice, the Americans would happily have us eliminate the militants that worry them the most, get their troops out of this neighbourhood as quickly as possible and ‘manage’ the less worrisome Pakistani militancy issue from afar. There’s no point in blaming the Americans; every country looks after its own interests first and foremost, especially in a very messy part of the world.

Neither of those positions is good for the future of this country. A civilian government beholden to neither power but striking a working partnership with both while having a very clear idea of its own policy against militancy — that alone would hold the promise of a better future.

But Zardari is reactive not proactive, he weighs received ideas rather than generate his own, he sits back rather than grasp the nettle — in short, he’s tugged in opposing directions without having an idea of where he wants to go and how he will get there. He’s perched in the driver’s seat, but controls very little in terms of real policy. The problem for the rest of us? We’re stuck in the back seat of that vehicle.