International Affairs Forum:
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has been sworn into office less than a year after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated and he was appointed co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Are you surprised by how quickly he’s risen to power?
Well I think we have reason to believe he was going to be in a central position once we heard the reading of her so-called will, which in effect leaves him the power of Regent. As head of the party, her son had been anointed to that position but cannot assume that, so we knew he was going to be a central player.
I do think, however, that there’s a great deal of surprise that he’s been sworn in as president. This we hadn’t anticipated. The feeling then was he might satisfy himself with just being the power behind the throne. But it didn’t look that way when he appointed Yousaf Raza Galiani as candidate for prime minister- a big party man and somebody that would listen to him. And then the feeling was that after a while he would replace him and become prime minister. But at least a while back we had no idea that he had his sights set on the presidency.
How do you think his reputation as ‘Mr 10 percent’ is going to affect his ability to be an effective leader?
For one thing it depends on what the office of the presidency is going to be like, in terms of the powers of the office. Right now he has rather strong powers, enabling him to effectively dismiss the government as well as appoint the major military figures. That and other powers give him a rather commanding position in the political system. He has said in the past that he is prepared to give up those, to remove those powers so that parliament wouldn’t have those hanging over their heads. He’s suggested that normal legislative processes would determine whether the government would fall. So we’ll see whether he keeps his promise or not. He’s broken so many others, and no one actually believes that now he’s acquired the position he’s going to be willing to turn it into a ceremonial office.
Do you think he’s got a lot of popular support? And how much political backing does he actually have?
Well, he has the support of, first of all, his own party. It has continued to rally behind him, even though many people in the party have less than positive feelings about him. But the feeling is, if the party doesn’t stay together it won’t be able to throw its weight around, and indeed there will be no basis for a coalition government. So for their own particular reasons of wanting to stay in power, they’ve decided to stick with him.
I think there’s a general feeling the broad public has become skeptical, and there’s good reason. He’s spent 11 years in prison for corruption-they never fully convicted him of anything, but he has faced many charges, which, by the way, would hang over him would the Supreme Court declare the amnesty he got last fall to be unconstitutional. That of course would explain why he’s resisted the restoration of the old Supreme Court.
I’d like to mention, also, the other parties who are joining the coalition. There’s no love lost for him- he’s not viewed as a particularly respected figure. But when it comes to the other parties, we would risk losing out [Nawaz] Sharif’s Muslim League. Those parties want the spoils of government. They dream of a wide coalition and join because it’s in their interests to do so and he’s made it in their interests- he’s made all kinds of promises, there are rumors he’s offered money and office to many. That wouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s the best explanation we have for how he was able to put together this coalition. What he excels at is wheeling and dealing. He’s a manipulator and when it comes to putting together coalitions, this is really playing to his skills.
Do you expect much difference between Zardari’s approach to tackling extremism and Musharraf’s?
Well, as far as rhetoric is concerned, he’s clearly stated that he sees the terrorism problem as a very real one. He’s saying things that are welcomed in Washington- in saying Pakistan is going to go after extremists in the border area and elsewhere. It’s in Pakistan’s interest to do so. The problem is if he’s seen as being pro-American this could work against him and actually constrain him. If he’s going to be effective in this he’s going to have to make the case that he is doing this for Pakistan’s interests. And that requires that he perhaps solve this, both militarily and politically with promises of development. And when that fails, as it inevitably will, he can say he’s made his best effort to conciliate these groups and have them join the mainstream in support of the state. Then he may try to move more aggressively.
But it all depends on what the army is prepared to do. If they think he has the public behind him I think they’ll mount the kind of campaign which is going to be necessary to really contain and even destroy the extremists. Right now I don’t think we’re looking at that. There is a more aggressive approach by the military, but whether they’re going to be able to sustain that is open to question.
Overall, how long do you see a Zardari presidency lasting? Do you think there’s hope for stability in Pakistan now?
Mr. Weinbaum: Well I think everyone is hoping things will stabilize now because clearly if they don’t, if the distractions of simple political survival are going to be there, there’s very little chance he’s going to be able to address not only the challenge presented by the militants, but also the greater challenge to his staying in power, which is the dire economic situation where there’s 25% inflation, shortages of fuel and food, energy, all of these are really what will end this government sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile you have Naraz Sharif standing outside as the opposition figure here and he will capitalize on failings. And if the coalition starts to come apart because of pressures or disagreements within, a general loathing for the coalition among the public, we’ll see a general election within the year. And in that election, given that Nawaz has been taking the high road, the principled position, and not being responsible for what may be wrong in the next few months, he’s in an excellent position to win a majority in the parliament and to become the prime minister after another election.
Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum is Scholar-in-Residence at the Middle East Institute and a former Afghanistan and Pakistan Analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence Research at the U.S. Department of State (1999-2003)
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