Trials of lost glory: Will the PPP come back from Zardari’s Arrest?
The arrest of former president Asif Ali Zardari has come as no surprise. The noose around him had been tightening after investigators produced incremental evidence implicating him in a money laundering case, and he was also under the microscope for running dubious financial and business networks through front-men.
After the Islamabad High Court declined to extend his pre-arrest bail, Zardari was detained for a further probe by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Other Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leaders, including one of Zardari’s sisters, Faryal Talpur, are also under investigation for corruption and the misuse of power.
Meanwhile, the NAB also arrested Hamza Sharif, a senior leader of the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). The leader of the opposition in the Punjab provincial assembly has been accused of money laundering and living beyond his means. He is the fourth member of the Sharif family being indicted on graft charges. While former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is serving a jail sentence, Hamza’s father Shahbaz Sharif, leader of the opposition in the National Assembly and a former Punjab Chief Minister is out on bail.
With PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif and PPP’s Zardari now behind bars, the decapitation of the two most powerful opposition parties is underway. In Pakistan, it is not the first time that the roller coaster of accountability has struck the political leadership, but the action taken this time around has been much more sweeping. With their top leaders in prison, the two dynasties that have dominated the country’s political scene for more than three decades are now struggling to keep their legacy alive.
The latest wave of arrests of top opposition leaders have intensified political confrontation in the country with opposition parties threatening to launch nationwide protests against what they call political victimization and selective accountability. The emerging political alignment that has brought together Pakistan’s two most bitter political rivals, the PML-N and PPP is ominous, although sheer political expediency forces the two to join hands.
These disparate opposition groups may not be able to bring the government down through street power, but they have already made things more difficult for Imran Khan, who is struggling to come to grips with a dire economic situation.
With PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif and PPP’s Zardari now behind bars, the decapitation of the two most powerful opposition parties is underway.
Indeed the charges against the former president and other opposition leaders are hard to defend. But allegations of victimization have brought the impartiality of the accountability process into question. NAB itself has become increasingly controversial, and flaws in its own operations have brought the anti-corruption body under intense public scrutiny.
Under NAB laws, anyone can be detained on mere allegations. In some cases, the accused have been detained for months without charge to enable authorities to extract a confession from them and to make them agree to a plea bargain.
It is a draconian process, and though allegations against many politicians may be true, it is the way in which cases have been pursued against a select few that has caused the bureau’s actions to stand open to criticism.
Zardari had already spent 11 years of his political life in prison before reaching the highest echelon of power. This time however, the situation for him is more difficult. Faced with multiple charges of corruption and the misuse of power, he escaped convictions in the past. But the charges now are far more damning, and bad health and old age makes it harder for him to suffer yet another period of a long incarceration.
Whether or not Zardari is convicted, the possibility of his return to the political center stage is now limited. He had already taken a back seat in the party leadership to allow his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to take charge. Certainly Bilawal, who has inherited the charisma of his grandfather and mother has inspired party supporters, but there is still a long way to go for him to regain the party’s lost political space. It all depends on whether he has the ability to take the party out of his controversial father’s shadow.
The latest charges of corruption against Zardari and some other members of his family have dealt a further blow to the PPP, which many analysts believe has long been on a ventilator, fighting to survive. For Bilawal, who is still on the learning curve, resuscitating it will be a difficult task. The question is: should he shed the baggage of his father? One thing is for certain. It will require much more than rhetoric for the PPP to reclaim the party’s lost position.