Asif Zardari’s election as Pakistan’s 12th President was a foregone conclusion. But doubts persist about his promise to rid the office he’d occupy of the draconian powers that made it a favourite abode of military rulers.
The PPP leader wears no epaulettes — only the stains of his infamous past. His candidature shifted, in fact, the public discourse from whether Pervez Musharraf should be pardoned to whether Zardari’s ambitions augured well for his party and the country.
What makes his presidency special — and vulnerable — is a blend of the PPP’s mass base and the powers he’d have under a 2003-04 constitutional amendment, to dissolve Parliament, appoint governors, judges and even the services chiefs. On the face of it, he’d need to expend one to keep another.
Why? Zardari’s could face early tumult — even isolation — if he disregards the overwhelming political consensus for right sizing the President’s powers. Conversely, he’d risk his relevance to the Americans habituated to Musharraf’s single-window clearance as President and Army Chief in the war against terror.
Already under fire for going back on his promise of emulating Sonia Gandhi by seeking a de facto rather than a de jure role in his country’s affairs, Zardari has no credible reasons for bypassing the Charter of Democracy (CoD) his slain wife Benazir Bhutto signed with PML leader Nawaz Sharif. Its basis is the revival of the 1973 constitution with no scope for an executive presidency.
The middle course available to him lies perhaps in Benazir’s argument for “a transition rather than a transformation” to parliamentary democracy. For starters, Zardari can swing popular imagination by giving up powers to dissolve Parliament.
“He does not need those powers when his own party is leading the government,” explained Imtiaz Alam, a commentator with good access to Zardari. The omnibus constitutional reforms could wait till March when the PPP will have a majority in the Upper House.
Until Zardari proves his credentials, this would remain a minority view in the all-pervading cynicism about the new President.