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‘Zardari’s only options: to quit or have reduced powers’


Islamabad : With terror attacks occurring with frightening regularity in Pakistan, beleaguered President Asif Ali Zardari seems to have just two options: give up his executive powers and occupy a ceremonial post or quit, a media report Thursday said.

“Events that will unfold in the next one month may prove critical for the future of Asif Ali Zardari as the president of Pakistan,” The News said, quoting several knowledgeable politicians, well-placed officials and an important presidential aide.

Zardari “is currently juggling with the option to either accept the position of a ceremonial president with no executive authority whatsoever” like his predecessors Rafiq Tarrar and Fazal Elahi Chaudhry, “or face ouster under political pressure”, the newspaper said.

In return, Zardari is expecting a face-saving way out on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) at least in parliament next month, a difficult proposition since the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) lacks political support on the issue in legislature.

Then president Pervez Musharraf promulgated the NRO in October 2007 granting immunity to politicians and military officers charged with corruption. The NRO enabled Zardari and his late wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, return home from exile.

The Pakistani Supreme Court in its July 31 judgment termed as unconstitutional the emergency Musharraf had declared Nov 3, 2007, and also invalidated the NRO. It gave parliament till Nov 30 this year to enact it into law or let it lapse.

The NRO is one of the 37 Musharraf-era ordinances parliament will review when it meets Nov 2.

The NRO apart, Zardari’s political problems are compounding rapidly as key players such as the army, the judiciary and political allies, who had facilitated his installation despite the PPP’s lack of majority in parliament last year, are now having second thoughts on letting Zardari combine the powers of the supreme commander of the armed forces, the president and the PPP chief in one individual.

“Dwindling faith in Zardari’s capacity to act as a neutral, corruption-free, nationally respected leader of Pakistan waned further early this month when the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), a pro-democracy group financed by the US government, reported in an in-depth survey that only about two in 10 Pakistanis carry any favourable opinion about Zardari,” The News said.

Against Zardari’s terrible approval rating, the same IRI survey revealed that a huge majority of Pakistanis, close to nine out of 10, hold the Pakistan Army in the highest esteem followed by the judiciary, which won the support of seven out of 10 Pakistanis.

The immediate concern facing Zardari, The News quoted officials and a personal aide as saying, was not his sinking public image but the growing unease in relations with an increasingly assertive Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

“Gilani now wants unhindered authority on matters of government that include foreign relations, meaning no role for president in the external and national security affairs of the state,” The News said.

“The prime minister, enjoying full confidence of the military leadership and the cabinet, has set on an independent course, often confronting Zardari’s closest allies like in November last year when he removed the president’s blue-eyed retired civil servant Salman Faruqi from the important post of deputy chairman Planning Commission.”

“He followed that by sacking Mahmood Ali Durrani, the president’s handpicked national security adviser in January this year and reinforced his position by neglecting Zardari’s preference for Shoaib Suddle, a professional police official, as the head of Intelligence Bureau, who was replaced by Javed Noor, an equally honourable professional police officer in May this year,” The News pointed out.

Musharraf had in 2002 rammed through the controversial 17th amendment transferring key executive powers from the prime minister’s office to the presidency. Faced with growing demands for its repeal, Zaradari has twice promised this would happen but has not set a time line.

“The president fully understands that all critical actors of power play in Pakistan, along with almost full spectrum of political parties, are putting their act together to launch a final salvo against him soon,” a close aide of Zardari conceded.

“But the real battle for his future in the presidency would still be fought in parliament, where he appears to be losing support, at least for now, notwithstanding strains in his ties with the military establishment,” The News noted.