Reconciliation and progress: One year of the Zardari Presidency

by Farahnaz Ispahani

The election of Asif Ali Zardari as Pakistan’s president one year ago marked the country’s return to full democracy after nine years of dictatorship. It was the first time since 1958, when Pakistan experienced its first coup d’etat that the presidency was to be occupied by the leader of a major political party in the country.

Politics and politicians have been ridiculed for five decades by those who have championed the dominance by an un-elected establishment. Pakistan’s last politician president held office from 1973 to1978 but then the constitution provided for the head of state to be a figurehead. Once the presidency was endowed with significant powers through constitutional amendments, the presidency was made a preserve of establishment nominees. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) decided to challenge that paradigm when it nominated its co-chairman for the highest office in the country. A year later, Pakistan’s march towards consolidation of democracy continues and the decision to elect President Zardari is proving to have been the correct one.

The PPP remains committed to undo the arbitrary changes to our country’s constitution introduced under authoritarian rule. But until the constitutional balance is restored in accordance with the spirit of the original 1973 Constitution it is important that the presidency should be occupied by someone who has struggled for democracy and suffered at the hands of the forces of dictatorship. With President Zardari in charge, there is no likelihood of presidential powers being used to derail or weaken the democratic process.

Since September 2008, the presidency and the office of prime minister are held by members of the same political party but in an unprecedented configuration. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is the Chief Executive, elected by parliament unanimously, and his party’s Co-Chairman holds the office of President ensuring smooth functioning of government. This differs significantly from the equation between 1993 and 1996, when Mr Farooq Leghari found it tempting as President to stage a coup against his own party’s leader, who was prime minister. By nominating and electing CO-Chairman Zardari as President of the Republic, the PPP shut the door of palace intrigue. This would make it easier to introduce constitutional amendments in accordance with the Charter of Democracy through consensus.

President Zardari has powerful detractors, some of whom have been attacking him since the day his nomination as a presidential candidate was announced. His bold initiative to save the federation immediately after the assassination of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto by countering regional and ethnic sentiment had made Mr Zardari very popular. For a short while it was impossible for his visceral critics to attack the widower of Shaheed Mohtarma, who swallowed their hatred and pretended to accept him as ‘a changed man’. But once he became a candidate for the presidency, he once again became a target. One scribe set the ball rolling by writing on August 29, 2008 that ‘a grave threat perception is fast developing in Islamabad’s key powers centres around Asif Zardari’s attempt to occupy the Presidency’.

Rumour mills have worked overtime over the last one year to weave conspiracy theories, set deadlines for governmental breakdown and predict a return to the era of palace intrigue and soft coups.

President Zardari has, however, remained steadfast in strengthening democracy and has been fully supported by Prime Minister Gilani and the professional civil and military officials. Last year’s major achievements include gathering public support for the fight against militants in the Swat Valley, securing an IMF bailout for the battered economy, restoration of the independent judiciary, working out of compromises between various political parties, and the outlining of a vision for transforming the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

The democratic government inherited a haemorrhaging economy buffeted by global financial turmoil, exogenous commodities price shock and adverse security environment.

This combined with erroneous policy choices and policy inaction by the previous governments during political transition led to macroeconomic imbalances, slower growth, higher inflation, sharp deterioration of external position, decline in capital inflows, historic fiscal deficit and huge drop in gross international reserves from a high of over $16 billion in April 2007 to a low of $3.4 billion (equal to less than 1 month imports) by end October 2008.

Prudent policies implemented after President Zardari’s election are yielding results. By end-June 2009, fiscal deficit had declined from a high of 7.4% to 4.3% of GDP, current account balance has declined from 8.4% to 5.3% of GDP and inflation had decelerated from a high of 25.3% in August 2008 to 13.1% by end-June 2009 year-on-year basis. Home remittances from Overseas Pakistanis reached a historic high of $ 7.811 billion and the trade deficit declined by 16.5% compared to last year. Foreign Direct Investment started to pick up again and stands at $3.721 billion despite adverse domestic and global environment. Gross foreign exchange reserves have moved back to three months imports (over $ 12 billion).

President Zardari’s principal achievement, however, is that he has proven wrong the prophets of doom and gloom. Pursuing the spirit of reconciliation articulated by Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto in her final days, the president has reached out across the political spectrum. Unlike some who prefer to seek approval by doing what is temporarily popular, President Zardari is willing to take difficult decisions and make tough choices. He has been elected for a five-year term and he need not seek applause on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. As a democrat he remains tolerant of criticism and has put up with a constant chorus trying to run him down.

As he completes his first year in office, President Zardari is clearly echoing the words of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah who said while addressing the nation soon after independence, ‘My message to you all is of hope, courage and confidence. Let us mobilize all our resources in a systematic and organized way and tackle the grave issues that confront us with grim determination and discipline worthy of a great nation.’

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Member of the National Assembly and Media Adviser to the co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

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