The problem with democracy is that sometimes the person that comes into power is exactly the person you wish would get arrested and sent to prison forever. In the case of Pakistan, it has come to pass that the most odious of political figures, Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, is now president of the Islamic Republic, with a two-third majority and – God help me – the mandate of the people.
Unlike the man he effectively replaces, General (ret) Pervez Musharraf, Zardari represents, in the most technical sense, at least, the federation of provinces. Three of the four provinces elected him by outright majority. The fourth and most populous province, the Punjab, did not, but that is no obstacle. Zardari is nevertheless president of Pakistan. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), of which he is co-chair with his son, represents the popular vote and arguably the largest voter base in the country. This was determined in the general elections of February 18, 2008. Now the PPP holds the two highest offices in the state, the presidency and the prime ministership.
Known throughout his late wife Benazir Bhutto’s political career as “Mr. Ten Percent” for skimming money from state coffers and ferreting them away in foreign bank accounts, Zardari is now the self-proclaimed democratic revenge of a nation both plagued by military dictatorship and aggrieved by the loss of its beloved sister, Benazir. “Democracy talks,” he said in his first presidential address today, “and everybody hears.”
I hear he’s no longer interested in repealing the law that allows the president to dissolve the assembly whenever he sees fit. I hear also that he may not resign the co-chairmanship of his party, even though the spirit of the constitution requires it. I hear that he will renege on the agreements he made on his way to this office, to restore the illegally removed Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and his Supreme Court bench.
I hear, most of all, that woe is us: for a man charged with financial crimes in multiple jurisdictions all over the world, who plead depression and dementia in one of those jurisdictions, is now leader of the nation. All of this is rumour and conjecture at this point, but I have found in Pakistani history that rumour and conjecture are the dust storm before the inundation of devastating monsoon rains and gale force winds.
Yet I am still heartened. On a live talk show on Geo TV today, the well-respected journalist and analyst Zahid Hussain made the comment that it is the elite and urban educated classes that are beating their breast about Zardari; the people who voted for the PPP are dancing in the streets. Ask these elite, he said, how many of them vote in the elections and the answer will be most illuminating.
So I shall number myself among these elite breast-beaters for now and pray the lord that democracy really does have its revenge. That Zardari does what he says he will: “Parliament is sovereign. This president shall be subservient to the parliament.” That in five years’ time we vote again and vote him out if he is corrupt and – God help me – vote him in again if he can bring us back from the brink of so many precipices: rising oil prices, power shortages, staggering inflation, food shortages, fighting in the northwest, fighting in Balochistan, US and coalition attacks on innocent Pakistani citizens in the northwest, and this Godforsaken war on terror.
I’m not expecting change. Nobody I know is. But I’m hopeful. It’s democracy and democracy is so rarely given space to breathe in Pakistan that one can’t help but be hopeful.