Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Anatomy of A Dynastic Succession Struggle

A week ago Asif Zardari was in the political wilderness. Right now he is riding high as the premier political figure in the country. How did he get there and perhaps more importantly, will this state of affairs last?

That there were many in the PPP hierarchy close to Benazir Bhutto who detested Zardari is no secret. That they blamed Zardari and his corrupt and thuggish ways for staining Bhutto's reputation and alienating both popular and political support is also well known. During Bhutto's second tenure as Prime Minister, Zardari was appointed to the cabinet with the environment ministry portfolio - a post which shuffled him out of a say in important decision-making while allowing him to collect bribes in return for the no-objection certificates every building, mining and industrial project requires from the Environment Ministry before getting underway.

But convicted of corruption, Zardari was jailed and only recently released by Musharraf as part of the political deal Musharraf was making with Benazir Bhutto. Zardari high-tailed it to Dubai where it was widely expected that he would remain, with no role to play in the coming elections or any kind of future Bhutto-Musharraf government. The PPP inner circle was reputedly happy with the arrangement.

Then came the assassination.

The revival of Zardari's political fortunes is the result of several factors, which include the pressures of a modern TV news media, the nearness of elections, Benazir Bhutto's style of absolutist politics within the party which eliminated any source of power within the party outside of that of her own Bhutto name, and the personality-cult brand of leadership so deeply rooted in South Asian cultures.

In the days immediately following Bhutto's death, Zardari was thrust into the media spotlight in a manner which none of the senior PPP leaders could match. As Bhutto's husband, all the political leaders of Pakistan, from Musharraf to Nawaz Sharif contacted him to commiserate. The live media coverage of the emotional scenes of the funeral procession, burial and ceremonial prayers all depicted Zardari at the forefront - the rest of the PPP leadership was lost in the crush of the crowd. Media reporters constantly wanted to speak with and interview Zardari - he became the focal point of attention and spokesperson for the grief and loss felt at Benazir's death.

Using this media focus on him, Zardari pushed to the forefront his son Bilawal. The Bhutto name was one that the inner sanctum of the PPP found hard to deny. Efforts to bring in other Bhuttos, such as Benazir's sister, Sanam Bhutto failed. Efforts by other branches of the Bhutto family, such as Benazir's uncle, Mumtaz and sister-in-law, Ghinwa, who Benazir had already sidelined and isolated in her own earlier succession power struggles were also unable to press their own claims.

If the PPP operated as a rationalised bureaucratic institution, power should have fallen to Makhdoom Amin Fahim - who held the second highest post in the party after Benazir. However this was a post Benazir had continually undermined when she led the party, and Makhdoom Amin Fahim had been appointed to it exactly because he had low standing in the party and was known for his loyalty and not for his capabilities. A too capable man would have been too much of a threat. Makhdoom Amin Fahim would have opposed Zardari's power grab but was unable to rally the rest of the party around him. Though he did come away from the meeting as the PPP candidate for Prime Minister, even this was made clear to be a temporary state of affairs.

Its interesting to note that one name that so many people were hopefully bandying about, Aitazaz Ahsan, the former PPP minister who championed the cause of the Chief Justice, was a non-starter for the post. As the PPP high command met in Naudero, he remained under house arrest in Karachi - confined, as he has been since September, for the crime of having represented the Chief Justice in Court. Aitazaz Ahsan had been effectively exiled from the inner circle of the Party by Benazir for having become too popular a figure in his own right, rather than as an adjutant to the Bhutto name.

The news conference held after the meeting of the PPP leadership at Naudero was informative almost as much for the body language of the PPP leaders and how it proceeded, as it was for what was said.

Bilal was placed in the middle and made a short, uncomfortable and stiff speech. Makhdoom Amin Fahim, in his slow plodding way tried to answer a question and was swiftly crowded out by a swift-talking, confident and assertive Zardari. He spent most of the news conference silent, sulking as Zardari took control of the proceedings. Zardari shut down any further questions to Bilawal by saying he was still at a 'tender age' and emphasizing his inexperience and unpreparedness to lead.

So what will the future hold?

The Insider Brief asks if the PPP will survive and opines that it will in a rather superficial analysis. The Pakistan Policy Blog asks more pertinent questions about the PPP's future, but offers few answers, and one blogger feels that a challenge to Zardari may be mounted not now, but down the line, by a formation coalescing around Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Jr. Another possibility is that there will be a renewed attempt to rally around Makhdoom Amin Fahim within the party to keep Zardari at bay. The hope in that case would be that if the PPP can win elections and Amin Fahim can position himself as Prime Minister, the post of Party chairman would become diminished. The problem with this hope is that there are a great many 'if's in the equation. It is quiet possible that, with the elections having to be delayed, Zardari will become the PPP candidate from Bhutto's constituency - and once he is elected, he may well angle for the Prime Ministership himself, or even another candidate in order to sideline Amin Fahim.

One thing is clear; the succession struggle is not yet over. So far only the first round has been won by Zardari - an emphatic win to be sure - but one in which he was helped by circumstances. It remains to be seen if his position is secure.

Edit: I should really make it a point to look into the International Herald Tribune more often. This article is a very interesting dissection of Zardari's ascension.


Shaan said...

I think you get it wrong when you term the Insider Brief's analysis superficial. The bottom line is that politics is driven by emotion as people are ultimately emotion-driven creatures. The analysis didn't go that far in depth b/c it didn't need to. (I can't fault you with your view though as you are a historian)

Example: Voters in the US were asked in 2004 who they thought the most intelligent candidate was. Answer: John Kerry. They were then asked with whom they'd rather have a beer. Answer: George W. Bush. Finally they were asked, who would they'd vote for. Answer: George W. Bush.

Lesson: Politics is irrational and sentiment driven. The Bhutto name is going to be what keeps the PPP afloat -- it's as simple as that. Which Bhutto is anyone's guess.

Misanthrope said...


Thanks for your comment. I termed the analysis superficial not because I faulted the reasoning or disagreed with it, but because I felt that the question 'Will the PPP survive?' as not being a question which examines the various possibilities that may come to pass.

I agree with the IB's analysis that the PPP will survive as a 'brand name' and that people will continue to vote for it in huge numbers despite Bhutto's death.

But other pertinent questions need to be asked, some of which are raised at the Pakistan Policy Blog: Can Zardari's control over the PPP last? Can he consolidate control? Will there be active internal opposition which can displace him or will it fragment the PPP [will we see PPP splinter into PPP-Bilawal, PPP-Zulfiqar, PPP-Makhdoom etc.] and if these splinters happen, will they take sizable chunks of support with them or will they be politically irrelevant? Also, how will Musharraf, the army, or PML-Q engage with the PPP? Will they work with Zardari or will they try to circumvent him by engaging with others within the party? Or will they decide that with Bhutto gone the PPP is best avoided altogether?

onix said...

no you see parlementarism in the make. I agree with both of you.

The ppp will be in a position to be "a real party", to perfectly blow it at likes (not unfeasable),
but could become to represent the first "remnant forever".eg. Would another player arrive on the theatre by a split, a 4th big party or a new one, you might see a classical example of a semi-conservative sideline party.
With loads of people clinging to (well) payed jobs if i understand the pakistani circumstances correctly..

WZ said...

Where does Fatima Bhutto sit in all this? Her recent interview with the London 'Times' newspaper (Sat 12 Jan 07) was given front page billing...