Changing Political Landscape of Pakistan

Zardari or Nawaz can be the next President
By Shaheen Sehbai, The News, February 27, 2008

ISLAMABAD: Helpless victims of General Pervez Musharraf for years, Mian Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, who were in political wilderness until just a few months ago and who have suddenly become the virtual controllers of the country’s destiny, realise that they have to get even with the establishment through a systematic, comprehensive and calculated joint strategy, outlines of which have already been agreed between them.

In long meetings with both these leaders in Islamabad in the last two days, it became clear that none of them was interested in acquiring power, just for the sake of power, as they realise that the struggle is much too bigger and multi-dimensional.

Both want to make basic and long overdue corrections in the country’s Constitution, including balancing the powers between the president and the prime minister, making the judiciary independent in the real sense, giving maximum provincial autonomy to bring the angry and smaller provinces into the national mainstream, remove the sword of 58-2(B), neutralise the National Security Council, free the media as it should be and, if necessary, make use of Article 6 mandatory.

To achieve these fundamental goals, Mian Nawaz Sharif is seriously thinking of either electing Mr Asif Ali Zardari as the country’s president, or he could himself assume that position to remove the distortions in the Constitution which Gen Pervez Musharraf has introduced through his PCOs and numerous amendments and executive orders.

If both of them decline to assume that role, for whatever political reasons, Mr Sharif thinks they can find some respectable person who would not be interested in the presidential powers that Mr Musharraf has grabbed and make him the country’s president, if necessary for the interim period in which the constitutional distortions could be corrected.

Sharif believes that a new president will have to be elected as Mr Musharraf will be unable to keep fighting like a commando, without any support from any side. Sharif’s strategy and plans are all based on a post-Musharraf scene. When I met Mr Zardari on Saturday night at his Bilawal House in Islamabad, he too was not thinking of who would be the prime minister or which ministry or chief ministership would be given to whom. He has been thrown into the political arena after the Benazir’s killing but he sees it as a God-given opportunity. He is in a different frame of mind. He talks and thinks about things which have not been done for decades. He wants to bring Baloch back from the mountains and give autonomy to provinces, as demanded by smaller federating units. He wants permanent independence for judges, financial and administrative, so that they are no dictated by any adventurer who uses brute force to grab power.

And his timeframe is no different from that of Mian Nawaz Sharif who says changes that have long been ignored must begin within few days after the new National Assembly begins functioning. He has a timeframe of just about 10 days to resolve the complicated judges’ issue once the NA meets. He has 30 days in his mind to amend the Constitution, remove all the bad clauses and cleanse it up. He has a maximum of 90 days in mind to take all the complex decisions, not in the interest of his own party, but for the country and its institutions.

Sharif and Zardari have already set up a high-powered committee to work out the modalities of resolving the judges’ issue and by the time the NA meets, a blueprint would be in their hands.

“We want to use the honeymoon period for maximum use to sort out the basics as other problems facing the nation are too grave and too involving,” he told a group of media men in Murree.

For these lofty goals, Mian Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari look like men in a hurry. They are not interested in power. Mr Sharif says his party will support the PPP 110 per cent in all its decisions, without demanding or claiming any share in the government because the government is not his goal.

Likewise Mr Zardari says we will take everybody on board, for a genuine national consensus, even those who are not part of the parliament because they boycotted the elections.

Both are ready for major compromises as well to achieve their “national goals”. Mr Sharif, who had a few months back steered the All Parties Conference in London and had declared that his party would never sit with the MQM of Mr Altaf Hussain, now says he is ready to accept them in a PPP-PML-N coalition.

“We will do it for the larger cause of the corrections that we want in the Constitution and our system,” he told us at his Murree residence on Sunday morning at a typical Lahori breakfast meeting.

Both Mian Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari agree, and are trying to convince other small political players, that the time has now come for a major overhauling of the Constitution and it should be done in one go, in one package, within days.

Likewise Mr Zardari has agreed to go along on the judges’ issue and to settle it as quickly as possible but through a proper process in the Parliament and not through agitation on the streets. Mr Sharif has conceded this point to the PPP and he is now convinced that the agitators, including the lawyers and the civil society, must allow the Parliament some time to settle this issue.

Sharif is not ready to give up the basic demand that the judges be restored but he thinks the process must be immediately taken up by the parliament and within 10 days a decision should be given so that everybody can breath easily with a fiercely independent and neutral judiciary in their seats overseeing the process of transition from an autocratic self-serving regime to a true democratic set up.

Sharif, in this context, narrated an interesting version of how he landed up in the middle of the lawyers rally before the Judges Enclave a couple of days after the elections. “I was proceeding to the Frontier House where I was putting up when suddenly I found myself in the middle of protesting lawyers as they were in the way to Frontier House. First the protestors thought that I was a government person because of the police and security vans protecting my motorcade. Some of them started hitting these vans and even my own jeep with sticks and stones and my jeep side glass was shattered. Then they realised that it was not a government man. They took me along and I had to make a speech.”

When asked about the March 9 deadline given by Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, Mian Nawaz Sharif clearly indicated that he would like the date to be put off as in his view this is not the right time to create a street scene.

“I talked to Aitzaz Ahsan on the subject and even he agreed that the March 9 date was not sacrosanct and could be moved forward,” Sharif said, clearly hinting that at this point in time, he would prefer a peaceful and parliamentary approach to resolve the issue rather than a street solution.

This consultation between Nawaz and Aitzaz was reflected on Tuesday in a letter circulated by Aitzaz to all presidents of country’s bar associations in which he said: “Our purpose in giving that date is to give our political parties the required backing that they may need to resist pressure to give up on restoration of judiciary. We will, however, accommodate any genuine need to readjust to a different schedule.”

Repeatedly, both Asif Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif kept asking me and other friends to assure the other side that they were very sincere and serious about the major issues and any attempt to create doubts and differences by interested parties, specially supporters of President Pervez Musharraf, must be exposed and defeated through continuous mutual consultations in an atmosphere of trust and confidence on each other.

One of the journalist colleagues described this new found love between Nawaz and Zardari as “a fire burning intensely on both the sides”. When one of us suggested that the two coalition partners should show their parliamentary strength to the people and the media in what could be called a National Assembly session before the official one, probably in a private hotel, both the leaders jumped on the idea.

Mr Zardari immediately asked his party leaders to talk to Mian Sahib and in Murree. Mr Sharif himself called Khwaja Asif, who was on a plane, flying to Islamabad to meet Mr Zardari and gave the proposal for immediate consideration.

Both sides took the suggestion so seriously, a joint meeting of all the parliamentary parties has already been summoned for Feb 27 where the coalition will show its strength and claim a majority, pressurising President Musharraf to call the National Assembly session and ask them to form the government. The ANP, independents and everybody supporting them would be there.

Likewise when asked how they would tackle the persistent efforts by the pro-Musharraf parties to create a rift in the coalition, Mian Sharif immediately accepted a colleague’s suggestion that daily joint press briefings be held in Islamabad so that both sides could answer any media question and stop rumours floated by interested parties.

The two leaders are serious in taking along provincial parties and junior partners. Asfandyar Wali is thus their common darling and both are in constant touch with him. Even the three leaders will soon be appearing before the national media together in Islamabad to present their united face.

In the background serious negotiations are going on to satisfy the regional demands of the smaller parties and provinces to get them in the national coalition. Mr Asfandyar Wali has a list of what he wants for the NWFP and neither Zardari nor Mr Sharif are in opposition to any of these demands, including renaming the NWFP as Pukhtunkhwa or the sensitive issue of Kalabagh dam. But as political animals, all of them know that such contentious issues have to be put on the back burner for now, until the democratic institutions are restored and become effective.

Mr Sharif and Asif Zardari are very mindful of not creating a situation which embarrasses in the Pakistan Army vis-‡-vis Gen Musharraf but they both believe that sooner than later he will be on his way out as there are hardly any cards left in his hands to play, except to create rifts in the PPP-PML-N ranks and capitalise on them.

Thus, they are both moving slow and may even look compromising at times when they talk of working with Mr Musharraf as they realise that the US and western capitals are very nervous with the thought of Musharraf quitting the scene prematurely.

Once the first goal posts are crossed, the new parliament is sworn in and government formation is completed in an atmosphere of harmony and trust, political pressure will automatically force Musharraf to come down from his high pedestal and work with those very persons whom he described as rogues and villains, corrupt and incompetent.

In such a Ghulam Ishaq Khan-like situation, with no secret agency doing the dirty job for him, with all his good-for-nothing political allies vanquished from the scene, with his team of retired bureaucrats jumping ship like rats, it would be hard for Musharraf to keep going. He does not need to be pushed over the cliff. He will himself fall and accept the generous offer of a safe exit that his former constituency will always give him.

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