Spearhead Analysis – 02.01.2017

By ShahBano Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Politics in Pakistan is in a state of flux: the electoral population has not only become active but is also more aware, public institutions are being scrutinized for their inefficiency, the democratically elected government has set a new economic pace for the country, opposition parties are more involved in holding those in power accountable, the parliament is sanctioning decisions effecting long-term changes in society, a small but assertive civil society is more involved in decision-making, the military is engaged in a continuous battle with the menace of terrorism, and the entire country is gradually gearing up for a new election season. Amidst these fluctuations, it seems PPP has a plan. After an eighteen month self-imposed exile, PPP co-chairperson and former president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, has returned to his native land.

Zardari had swiftly left the country after delivering a hard hitting speech against the military establishment and the then COAS General Raheel Sharif on 16 June, 2015. The Rangers have been involved in an ongoing military operation in the country’s economic hub Karachi since 2013. There have been many instances of friction between the Sindh government, political parties, and the military establishment in the province, and this power struggle has effectively transformed the political landscape of Sindh and its capital; where MQM has dwindled into despondency, PPP remains in power. While it is being said that Zardari’s return might have coincided with the change of military command, there have been multiple raids on the offices of Zardari’s close aids in Karachi, with the Rangers claiming that they have seized illegal arms, sensitive documents, and suspects. Despite the change in power, it seems the military establishment has not considered changing its policy in the Karachi Operation.

But, the question is: why has Zardari retuned? And how will it affect politics from here on? The answer might lie in the elaborate plan he announced on his return.

Zardari addressed a big crowd of his party workers and supporters at the airport, not only establishing PPP’s prior role in a peaceful hand over of power to strengthen and ensure democratic continuity, but also relaying his party’s current position in vying for a seat in the table of governance. In a “big surprise” Zardari announced that he along with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will be part of this Parliament. The move is being interpreted to mean that the PPP co-chairman will contest a by-election after the PPP MNA on the Nawabshah and Larkana seats are asked to resign. His decision to go back to the National Assembly along with his son has baffled analysts, critics, and supporters equally.  Two things can be inferred from this latest move: it is either a desperate attempt to bring PPP back into national relevance, or it is a starting point for a great momentum in the future politics of Pakistan. In either case, one has to first carefully sift through Zardari’s role, Bilawal’s contribution, and the party’s role- provincially and nationally.

While Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the poster boy of the party, has revived his national image, ideological bearing, and political leaning, it is abundantly clear that his father runs the show from the background. But despite winning cases of corruption against him the former President still faces doubt and suspicion; this is hardly conducive to a successful election season. In addition, eight consecutive years of PPP have devastated Sindh’s governance. While PPP still continues to be electorally dominant in Sindh, everywhere else it is less of a political alternative than what it likes to believe. It is being said that while Bilawal is exploring an alliance of progressive political parties to challenge PML-N’s role in Punjab, Zardari is poised to play the role of the ‘patriarch’, cobbling together alliances with other political forces. PPP has taken a back seat in recent years; this father-son duo plans to revive its fortune in the upcoming general elections. It is clear that they might play good cop, bad cop in order to pressurize the government.

But one thing’s assured, PPP plans to go through constitutional means to resuscitate its image, politics, and relevance. A strong PPP opposition will ensure that the Parliament becomes a space through which emanates all political decisions in the country. Moreover, by retaining its fire brand image the party attempts to fill the void that has been left by PML-N and PTI. But Punjab, Pakistan’s electoral hub is a difficult province to capture. Not withstanding PPP’s past performance, the political dynamic of the province might prove to be difficult for Zardari, Bilawal, and the party they represent. It was said that the government lost sleep over Zardari’s return, trying to anticipate his next move. While Bilawal has been vocal with his criticism of the government, and has put forth demands, Zardari’s presence always indicates a political dialogue; counterproductive to PPP’s move to take over the national seat. 

But whether Zardari’s fresh political move is desperate or well thought out is yet to be seen. Although it is clear that Pakistan’s political landscape stands at the cusp of great change, if PPP is effectively able to utilize this moment in time, it is possible that its voice might be one of many directing the country. If not, the party may not dwindle into oblivion, but it will experience a setback which will take many years to recover from. Sindh might still be under its control, but the rest of the country will move forward under a new governance which is increasingly egalitarian, accountable, and progressive.