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Will Zardari wield authority over the army?

By K. Subrahmanyam, IANS,

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, who has taken over as the president of Pakistan, will not be a ceremonial head of state. The widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto will be armed with the powers to dissolve the National Assembly and to appoint Supreme Court and high court judges as well as the chiefs of staff, and will be the supreme commander of the armed forces.

As president, Zardari will also preside over the National Security Council and National Command Authority of nuclear weapons.

In the history of Pakistan, civilian presidents with such powers were Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Farooq Leghari. The former was elected with the army’s support in 1988, while the latter was elected with Benazir Bhutto’s support in 1993.

Khan dismissed Benazir Bhutto as prime minister in 1990 and dissolved the National Assembly. He dismissed prime minister Nawaz Sharif and dissolved the National Assembly in 1993, but the Supreme Court held the dismissal unconstitutional and restored Sharif to office. The resulting crisis was resolved by then army chief Abdul Waheed Kakkar who obtained the resignations of both Sharif and Khan and aloowed the holding of fresh elections.

Those elections returned Benazir Bhutto to power with a majority. She got Leghari, her then loyalist, elected as president. In the next three years they developed serious differences and Leghari dismissed Benazir Bhutto and dissolved the National Assembly in November 1996.

The new elections brought Sharif to power with a landslide majority. He used it to strip the president of powers to dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss the prime minister. With the army’s tacit support, he compelled Leghari to resign. He vested in the prime minister all the powers that the 1973 constitution bestowed on the office of predient and made the post ceremonial.

However, Pervez Musharraf once again changed this and vested the powers of dismissing the prime minister and dissolving the National Assembly in the president. The two parties – the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had earlier agreed that this position would be reversed at the earliest and a constitutional amendment would be carried through, stripping the president of these powers. However, the amendment has not been enacted and therefore Zardari will have all the powers Musharraf had as president.

One wonders whether the PPP, under the present circumstances, will have any interest in enacting an amendment stripping the president of those powers and vesting them back in the prime minister.

In her latest pronouncements, Information Minister and PPP leader Sherry Rehman talked about a balanced distribution of powers between the president and the prime minister. Zardari, who is the co-chairman of the party, will be in a position to have the PPP prime minister to toe his line.

Zardari is not a popular person. He was known as Mr Ten Percent when his wife was the prime minister. There were many cases of corruption and money laundering against him and one case of alleged murder of his own brother-in-law Murtaza Bhutto. All these cases were withdrawn under Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).

It is feared that Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudary might set aside the NRO, which has compelled Zardari to oppose restoration of the chief justice. There are allegations in the Pakistani media that the NRO was part of the deal between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf, which the US promoted.

Now, reports have emanated that Zardari has been in touch with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to UN, who was formerly ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq and a specialist on Pakistan during the days he was in the National Security Council and the Rand Corporation. There is therefore a suspicion that Zardari’s bid for presidency may have US support. There is also a widespread belief that after the departure of Musharraf, perhaps even before his departure, the US had concluded that General Ashfaq Kayani is the man they have to deal with and have arrived at a modus vivendi with him.

Therefore, one wonders whether Zardari too had an understanding with the Pakistani Army on the lines of the arrangement it had with Khan and Benazir Bhutto in 1988, a deal that was worked out under US mediation. According to that arrangement, national security matters that included the armed forces; nuclear weapons; the Inter Services Intelligence(ISI); policies towards India, Afghanistan, China and the US would be excluded from the purview of the civilian government and made the exclusive prerogative of the army.

During that time, a scheme of troika consisting of the president, the prime minister and the army chief worked. Though this is not being discussed so far in the Pakistani media, the issue of importance for India is whether Zardari, when vested with all extra powers, will be like Khan or Musharraf.

It is very unlikely that he would be like the latter since he is not the army chief, which Musharraf was. If he is like Khan, then Pakistan’s policy in respect of Kashmir, India in general, Afghanistan, US, China and nuclear strategy including confidence building measures will be decided by the army chief, appropriately briefed by the ISI.

Zardari and Gilani together will be back to the era of first term of office of Benazir Bhutto. She had revealed extensively to the media how powerless she was in those days as prime minister. This time, not only the prime minister, but the president also will have to function within the lines drawn by the army chief.

Can Zardari assert his authority over the army? He has before him the example of Sharif who tried to dismiss an army chief and was in turn toppled. It is also likely that the US may prefer to deal with General Kayani as their primary interlocutor with a civilian façade provided by Zardari and Gilani. In other words, an asymmetric situation is likely to develop.

While Pakistanis will have access to Indian decision makers – the prime minister and foreign minister – the Indian side will not have access to the real decision makers of Pakistani foreign and security policy – the Pakistani army chief. Only one country in the world has that access – the US. So it is necessary for India to have close relations with the US defence establishment to get to know the Pakistani thinking on various issues.

Two questions have arisen of late. First relates to alleged fears expressed in the US about the mental stability of Zardari and consequent risks of his having his finger on Pakistani nuclear button. Zardari is reported to have produced certificates on his mental instability to secure bail, when he was in prison. Whatever may be the truth, the Pakistani nuclear button will be under the control of the army chief, though the formal position will be that the president is the ultimate authority.

Secondly, questions have been raised about Zardari pursuing his own policies. In Pakistan, the ISI, of which General Kayani was the erstwhile chief and of which he is now the overall boss as the army chief, collects all internal and external intelligence. Given Zardari’s background, he is bound to be influenced by the intelligence collected about him and he will hardly be in a position to act against the wishes of the army.

There is an oft repeated joke in Pakistan. In Pakistani polity, either a general sits on the chair of power or stands behind it. We have moved from the era when the general was sitting on the chair to one where he is standing behind.

(K. Subrahmanyam is India’s pre-eminent analyst on strategic and international affairs. He can be contacted at [email protected])