The return of PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari to Pakistan raised memories of his wife Benazir Bhutto’s return eight years ago, which was obliquely acknowledged by his using her death anniversary rally to announce that he and his (and her) son would enter Parliament forthwith through by-elections.
Asif Zardari, while a former President, went abroad to avoid arrest. He had done time off and on since 1990, when he was first arrested, after the dismissal of his wife’s first government and when he had first been named ‘Mr Ten Percent’, which was what he was supposed to have charged for the deals he pushed through. All the stories about him cannot be true, but there are many who believe there is a kernel of truth. Crucially, the establishment is thought to hold this view, and the suggestion by Imran Khan that the PPP should allow him to be subtracted from the PPP, much as the MQM has been asked to ditch Altaf Hussain, is supposed to reflect this.
His self-exile for about a year came when he made certain impolitic remarks about the military, which went down badly in some quarters. He was also exercised by the arrest of Dr Asim Hussain, a close and old friend. Dr Asim was Chairman of the Sindh Higher Education Commission, and had served as PM’s Adviser on Petroleum and Natural Resources. His arrest by Rangers was thought to be a prelude to Zardari’s arrest. Zardari left for Dubai, alleging medical reasons.
His absence allowed his son and fellow co-Chairperson, Bilawal Bhutto, to play a more active role. In fact, he did not act as a caretaker, but a successor, and took steps to mould the party in his image, rather than Zardari’s. Among his major steps were the changing of the Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, and the induction of Murad Ali Shah in his place, the Sindh President (with Nisar Khuhro replacing Qaim), and the Punjab President (with Qamar Zaman Kaira replacing Manzoor Wattoo).
All these changes were not carried out as the result of some rebellion, but after Zardari stamped his approval in Dubai. Unlike Benazir’s own experience of sacking her mother, Bilawal can be the dutiful son. True, up to the time of her sacking, Nusrat Bhutto duly rubberstamped all party decisions her daughter made. It should not be forgotten that Zardari was at Benazir’s side during this experience, and it had been through Nusrat that his proposal had gone for Benazir, through his own mother.
Bilawal thus has to keep in mind that whereas his paternal grandfather had been one of his maternal grandfather’s MNAs back in 1970, both his grandmothers had been friends. Bilawal finds himself at the place where his mother was when she got married, while Asif finds himself sort of in the place where Nusrat was. Bilawal is of marriageable age, and Asif is in search of a spouse for his son. Also likely to play a crucial role in Bilawal’s marriage are his sisters, particularly as they are all motherless. However, they are unlikely to play the role of Murtaza Bhutto, Benazir’s brother, about whose disapproval rumours swirled as long as he was alive. However, the PPP supporter might not be entirely comfortable about the way the party’s internal mechanics are now reduced to the dynamics of a family, but that was perhaps an inevitability after the PPP was taken over by Nusrat Bhutto after founder Zulfikar Ali was hanged. If the PPP has become a dynastic party, and if Benazir, Asif and Bilawal seem trapped within these roles, it is because of this original decision.
The announcement may well be a tacit acknowledgement that Zardari has felt sidelined ever since stepping down from the Presidency. By going back to the National Assembly, he will be the first ex-President to go back to Parliament. It is unusual, and unprecedented. In fact, the last American precedent is that of John Quincy Adams, who served one term as President between 1825 and 1829, but then was elected in 1830 to the US House of Representatives, where he remained until 1848, sitting for three different districts, until he died of a heart attack suffered on the floor of the House. Otherwise, former Presidents have retired from public life after having held the highest office in the land. Zardari is reflecting the intentions of Ch Fazal Elahi, the first President under the 1973 Constitution. He also intended to take part in elections after leaving office in 1979. He had died before the 1985 election was held. He had the ambiguous relationship with the PPP that Zardari does not have (being a lifelong devotee, from a young age). Before becoming President, he had become the PPP’s first National Assembly Speaker. Yet, once President, he had cooperated with the Zia Martial Law to the extent of remaining President even after the 1977 military takeover, remaining in office till his term ended.
Zardari is one of the few people to have been a member of both the National Assembly and Senate, being brought to both by the police under the command of the presiding officer. Indeed, he would enter the National Assembly as a free man for the first time. Again, he would be in the company of a relative: it was his wife before, now it will be his son. It might be an awkward situation now, for while he would be an ex-President, he would also be a sitting MNA, and thus be subject to different protocol requirements and entitlements. There would also be the question of the Leadership of the Opposition. At present, it is held by Khursheed Ahmad Shah, but he would be pushed back by Zardari and Bilawal. He would find himself relegated from first to third in the pecking order within the PPP National Assembly delegation. At present, he is Leader of the Opposition by virtue of being Leader of the PPP parliamentary party. Even if Zardari decides that being MNA is enough, Bilawal may assume the leadership of the parliamentary party, and thus of the Opposition. While it is possible for one person to be leader of the parliamentary party, and another person Leader of the Opposition, one has to go back to the 1988—90 Assembly for an example, provided by Mustafa Jatoi as Leader of the IJI parliamentary party and Ghulam Haider Wyne as Leader of the Opposition. The PPP in opposition had known only Benazir Bhutto as Leader while she was alive.
This move should also be seen as both father and son preparing both themselves and the party for the next general election. Entering Parliament now indicates an assumption that the Assembly will go to full term. The next election is due in 2018. This Assembly’s tenure will expire in June 2018, meaning any entry into the House will be for just over a year. If 2017 proves to be the election year, as PTI chief Imran Khan predicts, the father and son will still be well placed. Apart from giving Zardari an office, the aim of providing Bilawal with parliamentary experience will also have been served.