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Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari may become a figurehead

After the uproar over Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, many question whether the president will be able to maintain full power.

March 17, 2009|Laura King

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — On a day of delirious public celebrations over Pakistan's popular chief justice getting his job back, President Asif Ali Zardari stayed conspicuously out of sight.

The 52-year-old president, whose popularity had been flagging even before Pakistan's latest political crisis, was like an unwelcome guest Monday at a raucous nationwide party, pilloried for his heavy-handed treatment of activists who championed the cause of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

Now diplomats, analysts and ordinary Pakistanis are questioning whether Zardari, who seemed to have badly misread public opinion, will be able to hang on to his dual roles as head of state and leader of the Pakistan People's Party.

Many senior People's Party members were horrified by authoritarian measures Zardari ordered to try to suppress a march by backers of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and members of a lawyers movement that fought for two years for Chaudhry's reinstatement.

The crackdown included hundreds of arrests and tight restrictions on political gatherings. Information Minister Sherry Rehman quit over the weekend to protest threatened restrictions on a major TV channel, Geo. Amid the backlash against him, commentators suggested that Zardari might be reduced to a figurehead president, with Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani, who was relatively untainted by the controversy, taking on more authority.

"The party is in a difficult situation after this development, and the feeling of being upstaged by a rival is definitely going to leave a bitter taste," said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the nonprofit Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.

Mehboob said he expected that sentiment to translate into a curtailment of Zardari's "unbridled authority" as president -- a legacy of Zardari's predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, a general who granted himself extraordinary powers.

Some analysts said a split was possible between pro- and anti-Zardari camps within the People's Party, which was the largest vote-getter in parliamentary elections 13 months ago. According to polls, it has since lost ground to Sharif.

Zardari is regarded in the West as an important ally in the battle against a powerful Islamic insurgency; Sharif has close ties to Islamist parties and is viewed with some wariness by the Obama administration.

At celebratory gatherings across the country Monday, People's Party stalwarts pointedly avoided mention of Zardari, instead seeking to portray Chaudhry's reinstatement as fulfillment of a pledge by Benazir Bhutto, Zardari's assassinated wife. "This outcome is in accordance with her wishes," said Aitzaz Ahsan, the most prominent and respected leader of the lawyers movement.

The danger that the Chaudhry affair could have spiraled out of control also carried an explicit reminder that Pakistan's powerful military still considers itself a guardian of public order.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has signaled his intention to stay out of politics as much as possible. But Kayani met with Zardari shortly before the government's decision to reinstate the jurist was announced at daybreak Monday, and Pakistani media reports said the discussion was pivotal in resolving the crisis.

Zardari's isolation both within his party and from the public at large was a recurring theme as the crisis escalated. His spokesman was obliged to deny repeatedly that Zardari planned to resign. In a front-page commentary on Monday in the influential English-language newspaper Dawn, Editor Zaffar Abbas spoke of a "besieged leader" holed up in his presidential palace, gazing out at the maze of fortifications that had been erected to keep protesters from the capital.

Although the U.S. Embassy issued a statement praising the "statesmanlike" decision to reinstate Chaudhry, Western envoys took note of Zardari's fast-eroding stature inside and outside his party.

"Face it -- this isn't a guy with a lot of friends," said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to express his country's views.

"It's hard to see what his long-term future could be now," said a second Western envoy, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Before her death in December 2007, Bhutto, a former prime minister, anointed Zardari, together with their college-age son Bilawal, as her successors. Some of her closest associates harbored doubts about her husband's moral and intellectual fitness but acquiesced out of respect for her memory.

The president had pledged more than a year ago to reinstate the chief justice, who was fired by Musharraf and gained prominence as a symbol of resistance to military rule. But once in office, Zardari repeatedly delayed giving Chaudhry back his job.

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