What's next for marathon man Asif Zardari?

Aik Zardari sab pe bhari (Singular Zardari weighs them all down). Nothing quite beats the rather apt Urdu coinage that came to define the just ended term of the former president and co-chairperson of Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

It is difficult to recall another political figure in the country's history — burdened as he was with almost universal aversion — to have defied the odds and survived the political guillotine whose willing suppliers were pretty wide-ranged in their domain, reach and firepower.

But live to the last fullest hour, Asif Zardari did.

That he was able to still push the boundaries with a clutch of game-changing constitutional amendments that fortified the democratic system is remarkable. No matter if it all boiled down to a convoluted theorem called "reconciliation" that Zardari picked up from his slain spouse and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and indulgently, employed to maximize his political capital.

Last year when I met Rehman Malik, his interior minister and close confidante, he quite literally gave the game away by admitting that "President" Zardari had pre-decided he was not going to be ruffled by the abuse thrown at him before suggesting, poker-faced, that "one has to have a thick skin in politics".

The fruits of "reconciliation" — premised in the ability to co-opt even known inimical political forces — and remaining "thick-skinned" to provocations coming from the judiciary and security establishment, in particular, and the opposition and media, in general, enabled the PPP to complete its five-year term.

This was no mean achievement. Consider the lists of firsts that accrued as part of the one way ticket to the bloom. The PPP led by President Zardari became the first democratically elected government to complete its term as well as the first to hand over power in a democratic manner; his nominated prime minister became the first unanimously elected chief executive and the longest serving as well; the PPP became the first democratic government to present five consecutive national budgets; Zardari became the country's first head of state to address the joint sitting of parliament six times; he also made a mark as the first elected president to see out his term, get a farewell reception from a prime minister (not even belonging to his party) as well as receive a guard of honour — a first for a civilian president — on his way out!

It was perhaps, just as well that he received unprecedented, if generous, praise from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his longstanding political foe at the PM House.

Only three months ago, Pakistanis had to rub their eyes in disbelief as Zardari and his family was at hand to welcome Sharif and his family to the President House with bouquets of roses for the oath-taking.

This 'sight for sore eyes' followed weeks of vitriolic speeches by Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz, the chief minister of the powerful Punjab province, against the Zardari-led PPP in the run-up to the polls.

The tributes that Sharif rendered for Zardari were made in the presence of the country's military and political leadership with fond recall for how both the political forces had united to stop the path of military dictatorship.

Even though some commentators contended that the tributary show — the outgoing president also profusely warmed up to the sitting Prime Minister in his return address — were part of a broader understanding to retain the two-party parity, its imprint cannot be over-emphasised.

And so even while Sharif pledged to carry on the legacy of "reconciliation" initiated by Zardari, the latter reinforced "bilateralism" by vowing to move forward "under your leadership" and "doing politics only after five years."

In the aftermath of the laudatory speeches, the general inference is that the Sharif government will not pursue cases of corruption against Zardari even though the PPP leader is at his weakest ebb politically, and no longer enjoys immunity under the law.

However, Zardari's real tests of acumen lie ahead. It will be interesting to see, for instance, what course he adopts viz-a-viz the hostile superior judiciary, which he battled at least four years trying to fend off, even though the general expectation is that he may survive the noose with the chief justice due to retire in three months.

Zardari's ace challenge however, will be to resurrect the party — as a co-chair without presidential clout. The PPP did not just lose the election; save for securing its powerbase in interior Sindh, it was wiped out in the rest of the provinces. As a first step, Zardari has moved to Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab and Sharifs' stronghold, to set the house in order.

It won't be easy given that the former president remains a divisive factor within the party, which has stuttered in passing on the baton to a Bhutto, the family name which is synonymous with the party. Bilawal Bhutto, Zardari's son and his handpicked chairman, continues to live in his shadow and is, at best, a reluctant absorber of his father's diktat.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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