Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who has suffered two big political debacles in six weeks, appears to be fighting a battle for his survival in office.
"There are no rumours in Pakistan, only premature facts," a Pakistani journalist wrote some months ago.
A surfeit of premature facts is now doing the rounds about President Asif Ali Zardari, who has suffered two big political debacles in the short span of six weeks and now appears to be fighting a battle for his survival in office.
The powerful Pakistan Army is an important player in this battle. As there is no constitutional method to remove Mr. Zardari from office except for impeachment, increasingly, his opponents, even the "democratic" ones, apparently oblivious to the irony of it all, are quite happy to support extra-constitutional measures to do this. That is, unless he steps down on his own before or agrees to give up the executive powers of his office, an inheritance from the Musharraf years.
There is now little doubt that the sudden, somewhat orchestrated outcry in Pakistan over the "conditions" in the Kerry-Lugar legislation that enables the Obama Administration to give Pakistan $ 7.5 billion in development aid over five years was a stage-setter for the "Get Zardari" campaign.
The military openly expressed its displeasure at "clauses [in the legislation] impacting on national sovereignty"; the media suggested that U.S. legislators inserted the clauses seeking at the personal intervention of Mr. Zardari and his hand-picked envoy in Washington, Hussain Haqqani; the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif accused the government of a sell-out.
Mr. Zardari's corner tightened when the "KLB fiasco" segued to the tussle over the National Reconciliation Ordinance, the controversial law promulgated by Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler, to erase corruption cases against Benazir Bhutto and her husband to enable her return to Pakistan and participate in the "transition to democracy". Following her killing, by the time Mr. Zardari was ready to contest the presidential election, his path was clear thanks to the NRO.
On July 31 this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the November 3, 2007 emergency imposed by Musharraf was illegal and unconstitutional. The court was widely expected to rule against the NRO too. But instead, it asked the National Assembly to decide by the November-end the fate of 37 ordinances including the NRO, which Gen. Musharraf promulgated in the weeks before and during the six-week emergency.
Despite initial projections that PPP could get parliamentary backing for the NRO with the help of its allies, the government had reckoned without the growing strength and determination of the anti-Zardari lobby.
Nawaz Sharif, under fire for turning the PML(N) into a "friendly opposition", suddenly turned strident in his criticism of the law. Others too spoke out against it. But it was the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, an important coalition partner of the PPP, which truly stuck the knife in, by making plain its opposition to the law. Altaf Hussain, the London-based leader of the party, asked Mr. Zardari to make "the biggest sacrifice" in order to "save the system", widely interpreted as a call for resignation.
Even though the MQM is often accused of being an "agent of India" plotting to break-up Pakistan, it is viewed more widely as pro-military establishment. So Mr. Hussain's missive was seen as a message from a powerful "stakeholder".
Faced with the prospect of a humiliating defeat, the government did not put the NRO to vote. Without parliamentary approval, the ordinance will lapse at the end of November. The possible legal consequences for Mr. Zardari and other beneficiaries of the NRO, such as Interior Minister Rehman Malik, are now a subject of intense media speculation.
Once again all eyes are on the Supreme Court, where two petitions against the NRO are pending since 2007. If the court rules against the ordinance, legal experts say the cases against Mr. Zardari would stand resurrected. He is protected by presidential immunity and cannot be prosecuted while he holds office, but it could open a floodgate of legal challenges to his election.
Those ranged against Mr. Zardari say, rather self-servingly, that his departure, even if it is the result of a command whispered in his ear by the Army chief - the method by which Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary was restored back in March - would not mean the collapse of democracy, or even this government. He will simply be replaced by another president.
The "minus-one" lobby is egging on Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who has at times displayed a rebellious streak against the PPP leader, as a possible leader of a revolt within the PPP even though his abilities in this regard are questionable.
The embattled president has begun offering olive branches in all directions. In an attempt to mend fences with Mr. Sharif, he has pledged to repeal by early next year the 17th amendment, brought in by Gen. Musharraf to strengthen his powers as president. Doing this would turn Mr. Zardari into a lame-duck president, with real powers vesting in the Prime Minister.
The presidency is also trying to win over disgruntled elements in the PPP to shore up support and pre-empt moves to build alternate power-centres in the party. Mr. Zardari is currently involved in burying the hatchet with Aitzaz Ahsan, a PPP stalwart who was in the party doghouse for leading the campaign to have chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary restored.
But the word is that the countdown for Mr. Zardari has begun. While an Army coup is seen as unlikely, there is serious talk that the present set-up could be replaced by a "national government" that will give a bigger role to the conservative PML(N) and the pro-establishment religious parties. For his part, Mr. Zardari is reported to have told journalist buddies that he will quit only in an ambulance.
A lot of the blame for Mr. Zardari's present woes rests at his door. No surveys are needed to determine he is the least popular political leader in Pakistan today. He has been unable to shake off the "Mr 10 per cent" tag, and his accidental presidency is seen as just that. But where others might have tread carefully in such deep waters, Mr. Zardari leapt in with his characteristic over-confidence. His individualistic style of functioning and the concentration of the powers in him of an executive president and the leader of the PPP has led to widespread resentment. Critics accuse him of setting up controversial buddies in key positions and running a crony regime that has failed to understand that "2009 is not 1989".
But, say observers, matters might not have gone so swiftly downhill for him had he not antagonised the Army. If it was a bold political strategy on his part in the interests of democracy, as his supporters say, it has clearly backfired.
From the botched attempt to bring the Inter-Services Intelligence under the civilian government's control, to his insouciant declaration that Pakistan would agree to a "no first use" policy with India for its nuclear weapons, to his statements that the Kashmir issue should be put on the backburner, and that India was not the real enemy, he repeatedly tread on the Army's toes. His attempt to build an independent relationship with Washington was a further provocation for the Army. He was blamed directly for the put-down of the Army in the Kerry-Lugar legislation, its incorporation of Indian concerns about the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
The ongoing political intrigue is taking up all the energies of the government, rendering it more inefficient and unable to deliver, both in matters of basic governance and on the big issues facing the country. For the first time that Pakistanis can remember, sugar has virtually disappeared from the markets. But that does not matter much when people are bent under the daily anxiety of not knowing if they or their children will come home back alive, as every day, militancy and terrorism strike violent blows across the country.
Not surprisingly, there is now a sudden chorus of allegations about the "Indian-hand" in South Waziristan, behind the wave of suicide bombings and in the funding of the Taliban. The allegations are coming from ministers who are seen as close to the presidency. Such statements would please the security establishment and may insulate them from the fall-out of a possible change at the top. The anti-India rhetoric has also won approval at the popular level. Pakistanis see this as a correct and fitting response to India's continued arm-twisting of their government over the Mumbai attacks.
While the current situation rules out all hopes of any positive development on the India-Pakistan front, it also serves to confirm that Pakistani democracy is at best an exotic bonsai. Those who claim to be watering it are also steadily cutting away at its roots.