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President on the brink

With Imran Khan planning to turn the streets of Pak red this month, it is an open question whether the Zardari regime — battered by scandal and army hostility — will survive.Next for a neighbour

world Updated: Nov 20, 2011 02:48 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad
Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari is a man under siege. The last few weeks of this year may decide the fate of his presidency and the ruling government.

"Memogate" is just the latest in a series of challenges that face his government. The existence of a letter in which it seems he tried to strike a deal with Washington to fend off a feared military coup, has deepened the military's anger over his double-dealing.

In the next few weeks, both a newly-energised Imran Khan and the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim Leage-Nawaz, plan to take to the streets. Their plans carry an implicit threat of street violence and domestic unrest just when the military is fighting tribal militants on Pakistan's western border and faces a full blown insurgency in Balochistan.

"One can only wonder how much battering the government can take," says analyst Aisha Siddiqa, a specialist in military-political relations.

Imran Khan, cricket player turned political celebrity, is riding a wave of popular support for his party Tehreek e Insaf. Khan, whose platform consists of opposing corruption and reducing the American footprint in Pakistan, says he means business. "If the politicians do not declare their assets truthfully, we will come out on the roads and launch a civil disobedience movement.

"[Anti-corruption] has touched a nerve with many Pakistanis," says Feroz Khan, a party supporter. Thousands recently attended a Tehreek rally in Lahore, after which several high-profile politicians announced they would join the party. But it is the planned civil disobedience campaign that many analysts say will make Khan a real political contender. "Such actions result in violence and killings," comments journalist Najam Sethi. He says that if the campaign is handled right, it will help Khan in terms of profile as well as votes.

Not to be outdone, the opposition PML-N party, has said it will hold a long march against the Zardari government. Besides corruption it plans to raise issues like the collapse of state enterprises like the railways which are in danger of folding up. Many commentators believe the PML-N's long march has more to do with the Tehreek and less with the government. "The Tehreek may take away the votes of the PML-N from Punjab as both are Lahore based parties," notes Sethi. This is going to be a fiery December for Pakistani politics.

In all this, everyone has half an eye on the all-powerful army. In the past, the generals have worked through the Inter-Services Intelligence's political cell to fix results and buy candidates. While that cell was shut down by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, many believe the army will continue to play its role as king maker.

Till now, the army leadership has supported the Zardari government. "It was a symbiotic relationship," said one analyst, because of Zardari's support in Washington and Kayani's need for arms and money from the US. After the humiliating Abbotabad raid, however, the two generals are under pressure from other military commanders who accuse them of being too pro-American. Memogate has only strengthened those in the military who feel there is a need to rethink which civilian politician they should be supporting.

Zardari's strength comes from his smaller political parties like the PML-Quami party created by ex-president Pervez Musharraf, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa based Awami National Party and the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

But as his political position has weakened, Zardari has had to pay an ever higher price to keep his allies in line. This has caused disenchantment within Zardari's party. He recently sacked a provincial information minister at the MQM's request.

Not everyone is writing off Zardari. Political analysts say that the PPP remains popular in the country, especially in its stronghold in Sindh and south Punjab where it remains unchallenged. Zardari has handled much trickier situations and emerged victorious. "This is his strong point," says Salim Bokhari, the editor of The Nation. Bokhari calls Zardari "a survivor."

Zardari is reaching out to both the military and the PML-Nawaz in an attempt to blunt the Tehreek's appeal. The president has reportedly offered the PML-Nawaz a tradeoff in which the party supports him in the Memogate affair in return for the PPP joining hands with PML-Nawaz candidates - against Khan - in elections in Punjab.

Unfortunately there is every incentive for the Tehreek to trigger as much as unrest and violent as possible. If the opposition is able to bring people out on the roads and threaten the country's law and order situation, many do not rule out the army intervening. "It has happened in the past and can happen again," says political analyst Shamimur Rehman. If there is enough street violence, or a threat of rising violence, the Zardari government may have to back off or concede.

This could then mean the PPP government being forced to call elections in 2012, a year earlier than when then the five year term of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani comes to an end.

First Published: Nov 20, 2011 02:24 IST

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