Pakistan’s outgoing president Asif Zardari tempts history to salute him – by Jyoti Malhotra

President Asif Ali Zardari (C) inspects the guard of honour during his farewell ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Islamabad - Photo by AFP

President Zardari (C) inspects the guard of honour during his farewell ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Islamabad – AFP Photo

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 Deobandi 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 Deobandi insurgent groups like the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and the Sipah-i- Sahaba (operating as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat ASWJ-Deobandi) focus on sectarian killings, especially targeting Shia Muslims, Sunni Barelvis and Ahmadis.

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.

Source: Adapted with minor changes from DNA, India

Asif Zardari was not only a democratically-elected president, he was the first and so far the only president who was all-powerful yet used the power of his office as well as his own political capital to strengthen the democratic process and the elected parliament rather than undermine it. In a culture where the smallest functionary of the government is fiercely resistant to any attempt to check let alone reduce his power, it was President Asif Ali Zardari who unilaterally and voluntarily surrendered virtually all his powers as president, which could adversely affect the growth of parliamentary democracy.

This included the power of dissolution of the elected assembly under the notorious provision i.e., Article 58(2)B of the Constitution. Likewise, the crucial power to appoint military chiefs under Article 243 of the Constitution was voluntarily returned by President Zardari to the elected prime minister. Some of the powers of the president, such as the appointment of the chief election commissioner, were not only surrendered by President Zardari but were substituted by a mechanism that involved the opposition in the process of appointments. This was not only unprecedented but truly significant as it takes great vision, maturity and tolerance to involve your political opponents in making constitutional appointments.

While he was the undisputed leader and co-chairman of the country’s largest political party and powerful arguments could have been advanced in support of a constitutional scheme that envisages a politically-oriented and active presidency, yet President Zardari voluntarily accepted the mildly worded  order of the Lahore High Court that the presidency should be non-political.

This was the humble response of President Zardari in a historical context where the last occupant had remained in the presidency in military uniform for many years. He had even grafted a constitutional amendment to introduce the concept of a uniformed presidency. Yet, when eventually he was found violating even his own tailored constitutional bar on uniformed presidency and his further ambitions to contest elections in uniform were challenged in court, and when it was still not clear as to whether the judiciary would come in the way of his lasting ambition, he took no chances and subverted the Constitution and locked the judges. Contrast this to the response of President Zardari. (Iram Khalid, Express Tribune)

The landmark constitutional reforms would not have been possible without the president willing to part with the powers he had inherited. The 18th amendment restored the 1973 constitution to its original form while it also extended the sphere of provincial autonomy. Other amendments institutionalized the selection of an independent Election Commission and the chairman of the National Accountability Bureau. A consensus NFC Award with a larger share for the provinces in the divisible pool was another groundbreaking measure. It goes to the credit of the PPP government that despite provocations it did not penalize any media house or journalist. There were no political prisoners during its tenure. Similarly, there were no hangings of death row prisoners, with the sole exception of a soldier sentenced by a military court. (Pakistan Today)

Video: A tribute to Asif Ali Zardari



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