The most telling aspect of the Zardari Affair was the political manoeuvring that began in Islamabad — as well as coup rumours that had to be denied by Washington. A president suffering a cardiac problem being flown overseas for treatment would be ho-hum in most countries, even in South Asia. In the uncertain and ever-shifting political landscape of Pakistan, it was presumed this was about a head of State fleeing his country and speculation as to who would fill the vacuum.
This reflects the brittle state of the Pakistani polity today. Arguably it is an even more parlous condition than is normal. In the past few years, the military has sought to remote control the civilian government but at least tried to keep the civilian façade functioning and intact. Broadly speaking, most of this past year has been about the Pakistani military, humiliated by the US military’s raid on Abbottabad and the deteriorating situation on the country's western border, struggling to retain its standing at the political apex. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has found himself under attack from his own commanders. This has led him to increasingly find Mr Zardari, with whom he had worked out a power-sharing accommodation, a political liability, especially after the Memogate scandal. Also, the first sign of military weakness had led Nawaz Sharif to raise the flag of rebellion against the men in khaki. The evidence points to the military slowly but inexorably regaining its authority. The Imran Khan phenomenon, which is undermining Mr Sharif’s political base in the Punjab, has at least tacit military support. Zardari has always been vulnerable. He can no longer count on Washington and without military backing, it is likely that the judiciary will start to close in on him. Between what seems to be a genuine medical condition and what is likely to be an increasingly beleaguered position at home, his presidency can be expected to at best limp through the next few years.
Mr Kayani will probably survive but he will probably have to exert his authority more openly. Mr Sharif and Mr Khan can be expected to undermine each other and the civilian political party system as a whole. Sadly, all of this will make it more not less difficult for the leadership to solve Pakistan's mounting problems. The country’s fisc makes that of Greece look positively stable. The situation in Afghanistan is now so fluid and violent that it is likely to occupy Islamabad for a generation. None of these, and other issues, will be made easier to handle by the atherosclerosis affecting Pakistan's entire polity.