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For Pakistan's president, the writing is on the wall

By Maria Kuusisto

On 7 December, the Supreme Court of Pakistan started hearing a case that challenges the legitimacy of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), granting immunity to President Asif Ali Zardari and thousands of other politicians and bureaucrats against corruption cases dating back to the 1990s. Zardari has little option but to relinquish some of his powers if he wants to survive. While this may buy the president some time, tension is likely to continue, risking a major political shake-up.

The opposition Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) and the military desperately want to push President Zardari into a ceremonial role. They see Zardari as putting Pakistan's national interests (as well as the military's institutional interests) at risk and are pressing him to give up his powers under the constitution, thereby empowering Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. Zardari's most significant power is his right to sack an elected government and appoint the military leadership. In return for giving up his key powers, the PML-N and the military say they will not support efforts to remove Zardari.

If Zardari refuses to give up his key powers, he is likely to face intensified pressure and potential removal. The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, is likely to strike down the NRO case, using it as an opportunity to settle a long-standing political score with Zardari. This development could lead to the re-opening of corruption and criminal cases against him, some of which are suspected of having some real merit. If he's convicted, the opposition could bring an impeachment motion against him in the national assembly, where Zardari enjoys a narrow, often case-by-case majority.

Until recently, Zardari has refused to see the writing on the wall, thinking that he can manage the political pressures against him through a combination of political and judicial manipulation. However, on Nov. 29, Zardari handed over control of the National Command Authority (NCA), which is the agency in charge of the deployment and development of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, to Gilani. This could signal that Zardari is finally starting to realize he has few options but to give up his key powers. But he needs to act quickly, as the opposition and the military are growing impatient.  

Even if Zardari eventually gives up some of his powers, political tension will remain in Pakistan. The president is likely to try to dominate government. While Prime Minister Gilani is trying to take a more independent role, he remains a weak leader. He does not enjoy strong support within the PPP, which sees him as a political nobody and little more than Zardari's hand-picked choice. This makes Gilani highly dependent on Zardari's support. If Gilani refuses to fall in line, Zardari could sack him and replace him with someone else.

For the time being, the PML-N and the military want to work with the PPP government. The PML-N feels that an early fall of the PPP government would only invite the military to re-intervene in politics and undermine its longer-term political aims. Moreover, it feels that it needs more time to prepare the ground for national elections and it does not want to take charge of the government now when the country is facing multiple crises. Meanwhile, the military feels fears that a fall of the PPP government would strengthen PML-N's position.

While both Zardari and the PPP government may survive in the short term, pressure is likely to build up against them. Since the Feb. 2008 national elections, the popularity of Zardari and the PPP has taken a nosedive. They have become involved in a series of political scandals, which have undermined their credibility and distracted them from effective governance. Moreover, they have failed to meet their key pre-election promises of clean governance, pro-democratic reforms, and pro-people policies, and are perceived to be taking dictates from Washington. This weakened popularity is creating differences with the PPP's coalition partners and emboldening the opposition, which could lead to another crisis.

Maria Kuusisto is an analyst at Eurasia Group.

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