Fighting the wrong threat?

By:  Cyril Almeida

What’s holding up the constitutional amendment package? Raza Rabbani and his elves have been hard at work for months; the politicians swear they want it done sooner rather than later; heck, even the army is in favour of it. Surely, it isn’t that difficult.

Of course, neither is the answer to why the constitutional amendment process has not been completed: because President Zardari hasn’t said yes as yet. If Zardari gave the go-ahead this afternoon, you’d probably have the amendment by Sunday.

So why isn’t Zardari, who has pledged twice before parliament and countless times in his public statements to do away with the ‘anti-parliamentary’ powers of the presidency, giving the go-ahead? Why has December become January and January become March?

What makes the delay even more head-scratching is that if anyone needs the amendment, it’s Zardari. Besieged and beleaguered, the president needs a grand gesture to recover his political position. His newfound desire to tour the country will only buy him some time; eventually, he will have to do something concrete.

Gifting the country the constitutional amendment it desires is as concrete a gesture Zardari could make. Additionally, unlike, say, improving governance and his government’s record in office, a constitutional amendment would directly address many of the Zardari-specific concerns by shifting the political spotlight to the assemblies and thus allowing the president to operate from behind the scenes as the PPP co-chairman.

The politicians would be happy, the army would be happy and Zardari would retain significant political clout, though less direct power — surely a tempting outcome worth a shot when compared to raging about conspiracies from the deck of a sinking ship?

So why hasn’t Zardari done it yet? What is he scared of?

Having 58(2)(b) in the constitution doesn’t do Zardari much good — he isn’t very well going to sack his own government. And if he really does fear there is a conspiracy to oust him from the presidency, he wouldn’t want a successor to have the power to pull the plug on a PPP government.

Meanwhile, handing over the power to appoint the services chiefs would remove one of the major irritants between the army and the presidency. With Kayani set to retire in November, the army would prefer that the prime minister have the power of appointment. But that needn’t bother Zardari too much. As the PPP boss, Zardari would still have significant clout over Gilani, so it’s not like Zardari would have zero input in selecting the next services chiefs even if the formal appointment power was handed over to the prime minister.

And while Zardari does currently have the power to make appointments to the Supreme Court, the presence of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry until December 2013 has all but ensured that more adventurous choices, who may perhaps be beholden to the president, will not make it to the bench.

Little to lose, and much to gain (in terms of political capital) — the calculus favouring a quick constitutional amendment for Zardari is too obvious to ignore. And yet the president keeps on ignoring it. Why?

It is becoming apparent the reason is that Zardari continues to sees a threat from the camp whose leader has been saying and doing all the right things in support of democracy of late: the PML-N.

I must confess that I have come around to this view only reluctantly. But it has consistently been proffered as an explanation by long-time observers of politics here, and it is the only one that really makes any sense.

The theory goes something like this: Zardari has never liked or trusted Nawaz Sharif very much (perhaps Zardari sees in Sharif a vaulting ambition similar to his own? I’ll leave that to the pop psychologists.) But now the president is convinced that his recent legal troubles originate in Raiwind. And he also seems convinced about whom to blame if the Supreme Court makes a bid to dislodge him from the presidency: again, the man from Raiwind. So, given that a constitutional amendment package would benefit Sharif and clear a way for him to make a bid for power through mid-term elections, Zardari is determined not to play into his rival’s hands.

Is Zardari right to believe this? I don’t know. To anyone who claims to understand Sharif, I can only offer a few words from Sartaj Aziz’s memoirs: “As a human being, Nawaz Sharif is a complex personality. Even after observing him closely in different facets of his remarkable career for more than 20 years, I cannot claim that I understand him fully.”

So I’m not going to speculate about whether Zardari is right about Sharif’s true intentions. But I will say that even if he is, he’s pursuing the wrong strategy. Obviously, there is no such thing as risk-free politics. But there is such a thing as paying attention to the wrong threat.

Say Zardari assents to the constitutional amendment immediately, agreeing to become a titular head of state. Parliament sanctions it within days, and Nawaz Sharif immediately makes his bid for power. Then what? Sharif will have to go to the polls, and he will have to do so with little support from the establishment. He may sweep Punjab, but he has little proven support in the other provinces and will struggle to form a majority in the National Assembly.

Anyway you spin it, it wouldn’t look bleak for Zardari and the PPP in the long term.

Now consider the alternative: a weak Zardari refuses to top-up his political capital by going for the constitutional amendment because he’s wary of Sharif. But if Zardari is right about his other enemies, surely they will go for the kill. The establishment, though, doesn’t fight for short-term gains; if it strikes, it will try and keep Zardari & co out of power permanently.

So while Zardari may be right about Sharif’s intentions, what he should really be thinking about is that while Sharif and the PML-N don’t have the means to shut Zardari and the PPP permanently out of power, the establishment does (if not permanently, at least for long stretches).

All of this would be irrelevant if Zardari were politically and constitutionally in a strong position. Right now, he’s politically weak — and his enemies are circling. In response, Zardari has shown his instinct to fight. But what he hasn’t shown yet is his ability to fight smartly.

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