ISLAMABAD - Former president Asif Ali Zardari’s announcement at the death anniversary gathering of his late wife Benazir Bhutto that he and his son – PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – will contest by-elections to become members of the National Assembly – not only bewildered thousands of his party supporters and leaders – who were expecting him to make a big declaration against the ruling party to bring them to knees if their four demands were not met, which may otherwise have tested the nerves of the rulers – it has also ostensibly brought comfort to the rather “watchful” government.

Though the announcement has sent ripples through political circles it may have some upshot as well.

Zardari would be the second former president to become a member of the national assembly after Farooq Ahmed Leghari – whose experience was not so tempting.

Interestingly, Leghari – who died in 2010 – was also a prominent member of the Pakistan People’s Party until he developed differences with Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto. He dismissed Bhutto’s government in 1996 and started a descending journey in politics.

Leghari also clashed with Bhutto’s nemesis Nawaz Sharif – the incumbent prime minister – ultimately ending up in his resignation in 1997.  He did not quit politics after leaving the presidency and founded the Millat Party –which formed an alliance of seven parties known as the National Alliance, to contest the 2002 polls.

When Leghari entered the national assembly hall after winning the 2002 elections, he underwent a media trial. One write-up titled “From President to Pedestrian” particularly attracted attention. Leghari quit politics years later after spending some dull time in the parliament.

His Millat Party was merged into the Pakistan Muslim League led by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. His sons Awais Ahmed Leghari and Jamal Leghari are now members of the ruling PML-Nawaz.

Zardari will contest from his sister Faryal Talpur’s constituency, NA-207, and Bilawal from NA-204 in Larkana - currently PPP’s Ayaz Soomro is representing the constituency.

The father and the son will target the rulers’ “monarchy” in the country. Zardari said the PML-N won elections due to massive rigging and the PPP only accepted the 2013 polls’ result in “good faith”.

Zardari climbed the political ladder after tied the knot to Benazir Bhutto in 1987 and was the First Gentleman when she was elected as the Prime Minister in 1988.

The PPP’s first government was dismissed only 18 months in power by then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1990. Zardari was blamed for the government’s failure citing his alleged corruption.

Benazir Bhutto returned to power in 1993 and Zardari was appointed as the Federal Investment Minister and Chairperson Pakistan Environmental Protection Council.

In 1996, the PPP government was again dismissed by its own man –Leghari – a month after Benazir Bhutto’s brother Murtaza Bhutto was killed in Karachi. Zardari was arrested and indicted for the murder and on account of corruption charges. Between 1990 and 1997, he nominally served the parliament – being imprisoned.

On his release in 2004, Zardari went into self-exile and returned when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 becoming the PPP’s Co-chairman.

After the party’s victory in 2008 polls, Zardari soon became a powerful president to replace military ruler Pervez Musharraf who quit amid impeachment threats.

In 2013, he became the first president to complete a full five-year term and is also credited with leading a successful transfer of power to another civilian government.

Post-presidency, Zardari did not enjoy high popularity and was also engaged in some controversial statements against the establishment leading to another phase of self-imposed exile – ending last week when he returned to attend the Benazir’s death anniversary.

His announcement to become an MNA – to hold the government accountable – was a total surprise even for his close aides. “He kept his cards close to his chest. We all knew about Bilawal’s plans to contest polls but nobody had a hint, Zardari was also coming,” said a PPP leader close to the former president.

He believed Zardari cannot be compared to Leghari as he leads a big party with chances of becoming a prime minister or a president in the future. “Leghari did not have that luxury. Zardari can very well return to power like Benazir Bhutto did (in the 1990s),” he said.

Former Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said that Zardari has decided to join the parliament to point out mistakes of the government. “There is no bar on him to contest elections so nobody should have any reservations. Zardari will not be an ordinary MNA. Leghari’s popularity had died down when he rejoined the assembly,” he said.

Ashraf said Zardari’s experience and Bilawal’s appeal will be helpful in winning the 2018 polls.  “They will lead the party in and outside the parliament which will be a good combination,” he said.

PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar said Zardari and Bilawal both enjoyed respect in the PPP. He said further decisions will be taken when the two enter the assembly as members.

The senator said that the PPP did not believe in toppling governments but wanted the rulers to mend their ways. “Our protest against the wrongs of the government will never be designed to endanger democracy,” he said.

PML-N Senator Abdul Qayyum said Benazir Bhutto had entered politics riding the shoulders of her father – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto - but she “proved her metal and was recognised as a leader in her own right.”

He said although Zardari’s decision to become part of the parliament was a positive step he may not be able to turn the tables for the PPP. “He is neither Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nor Benazir Bhutto. Whenever he comes, people will speak of corruption. He cannot lead the PPP’s revival,” Qayyum maintained.

Bilawal, he said, was new but lacked command over the Urdu language to attract the general public.  “Even the parliamentarians may not understand his English,” he mocked.