Reconciliation Urged in Pakistan Crisis

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 19, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 18 -- Pakistan's ruling party, which narrowly survived a meltdown this week in the face of massive street demonstrations, is working to regroup and regain credibility despite the weakened position of its top leader, President Asif Ali Zardari.

Many Pakistanis hope Zardari, who was forced to capitulate to a coalition of opponents Monday and reinstate a group of deposed senior judges, will rise above his personal defeat and reach out to forge a permanent reconciliation, especially with his arch rival, ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

"If we want to succeed against extremists and terrorists, we must get our house in order," Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told journalists Wednesday. "I appeal to both the ruling party and the opposition to seek reconciliation. If we continue on the path of confrontation, it will do us great damage. We must strengthen democracy to have a strong foreign policy."

But analysts and critics within Zardari's Pakistan People's Party said they feared that the president, who has remained mostly silent and invisible since the crisis erupted, will resist mending fences with Sharif and leave Pakistan politically adrift at a time of severe threats from Islamist extremists and a gravely ailing economy.

Sharif, the leader of a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, threw his weight behind a national lawyers' movement to restore the judges ousted by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, and ended up as the campaign's triumphant champion. Sharif has said he would like to reconcile with his longtime adversary, though just last week he was calling for a "revolution" against him.

As for Zardari, critics here described him as isolated, surrounded by a few hawkish advisers and unwilling to face facts. They noted that only under intense pressure from the army chief and the United States, a major source of economic and military aid, did the president agree to restore the judges and call off plans to forcibly thwart a mass protest Monday in the capital.

"Mr. Zardari is in a bunker, and party workers feel disillusioned and disconnected. Our party has always been populist, but now it is dominated by power politics," said Safdar Abbasy, a senator from the PPP who broke with the president last week after police began arresting opposition activists. "What Mr. Zardari needs to do is sit and reflect on the need for reconciliation and stability in our society. It is all up to him."

Abbasy is one of half a dozen senior party members, including Sen. Raza Rabbani and former information minister Sherry Rehman, who resigned from their posts recently. The country's leading opposition lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, is a lifelong PPP stalwart, but has never supported Zardari.

One thing the dissidents have in common is a strong devotion to the memory and ideals of Zardari's late wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007. They view Zardari, a businessman with a reputation for corrupt dealings and a short temper, as a poor substitute who has damaged the party and the country.

In contrast, the star of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, once viewed as the president's yes-man, has risen rapidly during the recent crisis. In private, he was reported to strongly oppose the government's crackdown on the opposition. In public, he was the reassuring figure who appeared on television Monday to announce that the judges would be restored and the ban on public rallies would be lifted. Now, some in PPP circles see Gillani as a potential savior of the party.

"While Zardari's democratic credentials have been severely undermined, Gillani has gone from being seen as a puppet to looking like a statesman," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of security studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. If the judiciary reverses a constitutional amendment imposed under Musharraf that expanded presidential authority, it would reduce some executive powers and benefit the prime minister. Otherwise, Hussain said, "Zardari's shadow will continue to color everything."

One key difference between the two officials is over how to deal with Sharif. Zardari, whose family rivalry with Sharif goes back decades, engineered several judicial and executive actions last month to reduce Sharif's political power, including imposing emergency rule on Punjab province, his stronghold.

Gillani, emphasizing the need for stability, has publicly called for those measures to be reversed, and Sharif has suggested that he would be willing to rejoin the governing coalition if the government drops its effort to control Punjab and implements a "Charter of Democracy" that Sharif signed with Bhutto before her death. However, Zardari is said to be resisting.

Analysts said that one lesson from the political crisis was the need to replace personality-driven politics with stronger civilian institutions. At a time when the nuclear-armed nation faces a growing menace from armed Islamist extremists, many Pakistanis and foreign observers were dismayed to see the country's two political dynasties at each other's throats again.

"This is the time to move away from the politics of individualism," said Abbasy. "We have been struggling to build a parliamentary democracy for a long time, and the movement to restore the judiciary has changed the country's psyche. Today Zardari may be president and tomorrow somebody else, but people want to make sure our institutions are strong."

The best bulwark against the threat from extremist groups, analysts said, would be a unified government that included secular parties like the PPP and more religiously conservative parties like the Muslim League. But if the government remains weak and divided by partisan conflict, they said, it will offer violent Islamists another opportunity to exploit.

"Groups like the Taliban thrive in a vacuum of power," said Iqbal Haider, a dissident PPP senator and lawyer. "Restoring the independent judiciary strengthens the government's hand to confront terror. If we can also end this political polarization and implement the Charter of Democracy, it will further strengthen our ability to confront the fanatics in our midst."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company