When not under an outright military dictatorship, Pakistan in recent years has been run by a troika of its president, its prime minister and the army chief of staff. These arrangements have been inherently unstable because the division of power has little to do with the constitution and everything to do with winning confrontations on the streets of Pakistan or corridors in Washington. The latest such political struggle has represented a slight variation of the theme. The person who has been left cock of the walk is the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The presidency of Asif Ali Zardari has emerged isolated within the Pakistani polity and its authority severely reduced. Zardari showed remarkably poor political acumen when he declined to reinstate the popular chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and then backing a kangaroo Supreme Court’s decision to nullify Sharif’s election as governor of Punjab.
Zardari has none of Sharif’s ability to mobilise public opinion and is unpopular even with his own Pakistan People’s Party. Faced with the blatant nature of his own manipulations and Sharif’s ability to convert it into mass protests, the president found himself standing alone. The defection of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and his own failure to win the backing of either the army or the US administration left Zardari little choice but to throw in the towel. Sharif has used the crisis to consolidate his position within Pakistan today. First, he has ensured that Washington, until now the main opponent of his political resurrection, has accepted that he is the primus inter pares in Pakistan’s political pantheon. Second, the past few days of political theatre have wiped out popular memories of the authoritarian bent he showed before being overthrown by Musharraf. Finally, and most important, he has shown Zardari to be a president minus support or credibility to both external and internal players in Pakistani politics.
The game is hardly over yet. Zardari may soon face his own constitutional problems if the returning Justice Chaudhry decides to end the immunity Musharraf granted to Zardari over graft charges. If so, Sharif will not have to lift a finger in the next chapter of the implosion of the Zardari presidency.