It happened in 2005. “The man you are convicting will be President of Pakistan one day,” shouted Asif Ali Zardari from the backbenches in a Rawalpindi courtroom. The presiding judge had just convicted Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani for “irregularities” in appointments to his secretariat as Speaker of the National Assembly during the 1993-1996 Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) rule.
Zardari was under trial on charges of corruption in the same Ehtesab (accountability) Court. Three years down the line, he has (almost) lived up to his promise, elevating the soft-spoken PPP legislator from Multan to the post of Pakistan’s prime minister. The official PPP announcement came a couple of hours before the 52nd anniversary of the 1956 Constitution — the adoption of which is celebrated as Pakistan’s National Day.
The constitution’s subsequent 1973 version — authored under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — was mauled badly by successive military rulers. Once it is restored to its original shape, as willed in the charter of democracy the late Benazir Bhutto signed with Nawaz Sharif, the Presidency’s powers will stand abrogated or transferred to the federal cabinet led by the new prime minister.
“It will be a poetic realisation of Zardari’s prophecy,” remarked a veteran PPP watcher. A dark-horse in the prime ministerial sweepstakes, Gilani is short on charisma but high on fair play. Zardari confirmed his candidature following intense intra-party consultations involving among others, his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is the PPP chairman.
Born in June 1952, the 56-year-old PM-designate was first imprisoned in 2001 and spent nearly six years in Musharraf’s jails before being exonerated by the Supreme Court. He will be administered the oath of office on Tuesday by the very President whose powers he will need to clip.
Gilani pipped other contenders for the prime minister’s post for several reasons — foremost among them being his Punjabi background. The PPP hopes to exploit this factor in the largest Pakistani province where its ally, the Pakistan Muslim League’s Nawaz faction, recovered its support-base in the February 18 elections.
“Do you know how popular Nawaz Sharif has become in Punjab,” asked noted commentator and TV personality Ghazi Salauddin. “The PPP cannot allow him a free run in the province that makes and breaks governments.” The fact that Gilani once defeated Sharif at the hustings — in the 1988 national assembly poll from Multan — surely weighed heavily in his favour.
Gilani is no stop gap choice. “Media speculation about Zardari wanting to be PM was pure hogwash,” claimed Nurat Javeed, another leading TV anchor, with close access to the PPP co-chairman.
Another attribute that helped Gilani emerge stronger than other aspirants to the throne — former federal ministers and fellow Punjabis Shah Mahmood Quershi and Ahmed Mukhtar — was his consensual approach to issues. But he can be tough too. As Speaker, he stood his ground against Benazir’s wishes while permitting the incarcerated PML leader Sheikh Rashid, a known PPP-baiter, to attend the assembly proceedings. Benazir relented but not before Gilani stopped presiding over the Assembly in protest.
The PPP-PML-N coalition couldn’t, therefore, have given a better candidate for realising their number one objective of parliament’s supremacy in the country’s affairs.