Your turn, Zardari
Arguably the most controversial political figure in the country, Pakistan People’s Party chairman Asif Ali Zardari finds himself in deep water yet again with a damning indictment in a money laundering case. He is accused of running dubious financial and business networks through frontmen worth billions of rupees.
Zardari’s notorious history of corruption has been under discussion for years, but now, given the incriminating evidence produced against him by investigators, there is a strong chance that Pakistan’s former president and widower of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, will end up convicted.
With Nawaz Sharif, the disgraced three-time former prime minister from the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) already serving a prison sentence, the PPP leader’s arrest would effectively mark the leadership-decapitation of the two political parties that have dominated Pakistani politics for the last four decades.
Though this is not the first time Pakistan is witnessing an accountability roller-coaster knocking down top political leadership, things do seem more serious this time.
Perhaps most troubling for the PPP is that it is not only the fate of the former president that hangs in the balance but other PPP leaders as well- including one of Zardari’s sisters who face similar charges. Last month, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) arrested the speaker of the Sindh provincial assembly on corruption charges, and Zardari’s son Bilawal Bhutto, who is preparing to take over command of the party, has also been under investigation.
The noose tightening around its top leadership has generated a political storm in Sindh, the PPP’s citadel of political power. PPP leaders have threatened to launch a nation-wide movement in case the Zardari family is convicted and is negotiating with other opposition parties including Sharif’s PML-N to form a joint anti-government front. That being said, it will be an almost impossible task for Pakistan’s opposition parties to inspire the public enough to get them out on the streets.
The investigation has revived the age-old accusations of political engineering in Sindh, whereby the charges against Zardari and other senior party leaders are seen as part of a larger plan to remove the Sindh government entirely.
The phenomenal wealth allegedly accumulated by the Zardari family through dubious means seems hard to defend. But the credibility of the ongoing accountability process itself is also questionable and the opposition parties are accusing the anti-graft body of carrying out a witch-hunt against their leadership. The PPP’s fears may be exaggerated, but there is little doubt that Imran Khan’s government intends to take control of the country’s second-largest province.
The investigation has revived the age-old accusations of political engineering in Sindh, whereby the charges against Zardari and other senior party leaders are seen as part of a larger plan to remove the Sindh government entirely and end its constitutionally assured provincial autonomy.
The PPP has repeatedly connected the charges against its leaders with a conspiracy to abolish the 18th Amendment and to impose federal rule in the province. And though this is unlikely, the federal government has failed to dispel their concerns, further complicating the issue with its silence.
In last year’s general elections, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) victory in Karachi, the country’s largest city and its financial and industrial lifeline, put Khan’s party on a strong footing in provincial politics. The PTI’s rise to becoming the second-largest party in Sindh with its control in urban areas completely changed the political dynamics of the troubled province. It also gave the party a heady sense of power, as observed in countless statements from PTI federal ministers and the PTI’s provincial leadership.
But any move to destabilize Sindh’s provincial government will be disastrous for the entire system and the politics of confrontation will not benefit either side — particularly at a time when the country faces multiple economic and political challenges. Political engineering has been the major cause of political instability and mistrust in the country and the reason for growing alienation within. Such moves have not worked in the past, nor will they work now.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is the author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.