Friday, February 27, 2009

More Political Instability: Just What The Doctor Ordered

I can see why Asif Zardari might look at Pakistan's war with the Taliban, collapsing economy, downturn in relations with India, militant activity that has claimed the lives of hundreds of innocents, and think: wait a minute! We need more crises here! The party's just getting started!

Let's be serious for a second, because Asif Zardari sure as hell won't be. I want to make three points in this post. First, I want to talk about what "democracy" as a political dispensation really means. Second, I want to talk about how little Asif Zardari cares about this thing we call "democracy". Third, I want to talk about how Asif Zardari is kind of an asshole on a purely personal level.

1. What does "democracy" mean?

Last summer, I took my qualifying exam in Comparative Politics, and one of the two topics I dealt with was democratization. One thing that struck me reading all those books and articles was how little consensus there is on the big questions in the process of democratization, and the concept of democracy more generally. There is disagreement, for instance, on whether democracy should refer to the mere holding of free and fair elections, or whether it should also entail certain societal freedoms. There is disagreement on whether the primary causal factors in states becoming democratic are culturally given, economically given, institutionally given, or social-structurally given. There is disagreement on whether democratization is an elite-led or middle class-led phenomenon.

What there is little disagreement on, however, is the fact that democracy involves limits on power. It entails a circumscribed notion of what leaders can do once they gain the important executive and legislative offices of the land. It implies that individuals can only go so far before their will is subject to institutions or checks and balances. Democracy, then, is best understood as a balance of legal power at the national level.

2. Asif Zardari does not care about democracy

For all the nonsense about democracy being the best revenge, and all the meaningless platitudes that Zardari has peddled in the Western press about a return to parliamentary supremacy, let one thing be absolutely clear: Asif Zardari has no interest whatsoever in limits on power. Six months ago, Hussain Haqqani Zardari penned the following lines in the Washington Post:
If I am elected president, one of my highest priorities will be to support the prime minister, the National Assembly and the Senate to amend the constitution to bring back into balance the powers of the presidency and thereby reduce its ability to bring down democratic governance.

Evidently, this priority was not high enough. Anyone expecting otherwise was and remains a complete fool. This includes our charming Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani.
Associates of Mr. Gilani say the prime minister has grown frustrated at Mr. Zardari's failure to fulfill his promise to reduce the presidency to its traditional role as head of state, allowing the prime minister to take a bigger role in decision-making and appointments.

Really? Did Gillani honestly expect otherwise? If he did, then he's dumber than I originally thought, and let me tell you, that's really saying something.

The sidelining of Amin Fahim and Aitzaz Ahsan, the continued allergy to an Iftikhar Chaudhry-led Supreme Court, the choice of Salman Taseer to play spoiler in Punjab -- these are all instances (among many) of Asif Zardari being concerned first and foremost with solidifying and extending his control of both the PPP and the country at large.

It is safe to say, then, that Asif Zardari is not concerned with limits on power. This is another way of saying that Asif Zardari is not concerned with democracy.

Sidenote: about four or five weeks ago, a student in a class I TA raised her hand. We had been talking about formal models (game theoretic analyses of politics writ large) in the preceding fifteen minutes or so. Now, those who know me well know my methodological biases against game theory: I think -- to put it kindly -- that it is a crock of shit.

Anyway, this girl raised her hand and started railing against some of the assumptions made in these formal models. One quibble she had was with the fact that many formal models assume explicitly that leaders care most (or only) about staying in power. "I don't think that's a very realisitic assumption," she sniffed. "Leaders care about their populations too." I told her: "Look, I'm with you on the general fact that assumptions in formal models are unrealistic. But I think there is scant evidence to suggest that leaders care about the people they govern in any meaningful way. You can disagree with me, but I just don't think it's true."

I'm glad I have Asif Zardari around to prove me right, once in a while. If ever we needed evidence that the well-being of the average Pakistani is not of concern to Asif Zardari, his providing impetus to a very real risk of even greater political destabilization of Pakistan at this juncture in out history has provided it.

3. Asif Zardari is an unpleasant person

We have the Wall Street Journal to thank for these remarkable tidbits (and Nabeel, no doubt, for sending me the link). I will simply copy and paste the relevant excerpts here; there is little need for me to comment.
Since taking over the presidency last September, Mr. Zardari has surrounded himself with a small cadre of advisers, many of them unelected, including family members and associates whom Mr. Zardari got to know in jail or in exile, leaving even government officials unsure of who runs what. Among the members of Mr. Zardari's inner circle: his former physician, Dr. Asim Hussain, who in addition to running a hospital in Karachi is the government's adviser on petroleum affairs and runs the oil ministry, despite having no background in the industry.

At meetings in recent months, according to several witnesses, he lashed out at senior ministers, calling one a "witch" and another "impotent."

And, with more detail on the "impotent" claim:
At a meeting in mid-January, Mr. Zardari taunted Sen. Raza Rabbani, Pakistan's provincial coordination minister, calling him "impotent" after the two disagreed on how to approach allied political parties about running certain candidates in upcoming Senate elections. "You always say no, and that is a reason why you don't have children," the president told the 55-year-old senator, according to multiple witnesses.

In previous meetings, Mr. Zardari has called a senior cabinet minister a "witch" on many occasions. He has told others to "shut up" or mocked their personal foibles, divorces, affairs. "This is what you come to expect at the presidency. You go there and you are insulted," said another senator who was at the mid-January meeting.

Good times.



You write brilliant articles and have good insights. What will Zardari do in between the terrorists on one side and ISI and Army on the other? Also with Jamaat e Islami being invited to China, (Jamaat being arrayed against Zardari), what does it mean for Z?




I am sorry had to come back in again, as I saw your comments on ZAID HAMID.

I did a post on him and I got 300 comments, of which 150 came from one "crazed" guy from Pakistan - people are saying he is ZZ Hamid himself. You got to see the comments to believe it.



Kalsoom said...

Umm, this is SOOO not the Lost analysis post I was waiting so patiently for.

But seriously, great post. I was just having this very conversation with my father, who still believes there is some underlying motive for all of Zardari's political missteps. I say, nay, tis simple - he just does not give a crap about the country. Getting rid of Shahbaz, who is extremely popular in Punjab and giving Salman Taseer full reign of the province? What did he expect would happen? He obviously does not care! It boggles my mind, although maybe I'm so jaded with Pakistani politics to really be surprised anymore.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Ahsan, especially your point that Democracy is best understood as a balance of legal power at the national level.I agree that governments with a strong mandate may tend to abuse power if there are no effective checks and balances mechanisms.

I have read somewhere that Democracy is not about who rules but it is about how people are ruled.

A great analysis with anecdotes and quotes.Keep up the good work.

Majaz said...

Hahahah! Can't stop laughing! Amazing post!

Sputnik said...

I appreciated this post mainly for your trashing of game theory.

Anonymous said...

The 'witch' in question is of course Sherry Rehman. When asked by one of her former journalist colleagues as to how she copes with this name calling, she insisted that Zardari called her a "churd'ail" with affection.

One can therefore assume when Zardari, during the moments of even greater affection, endearingly addresses her as "kutti"

Ahsan said...


In response to your question of what Zardari will do with militants on one side and the army on the other, he will do what he has done thus far: sit on his ass and let other players (Kayani, Rehman Malik, the US) figure it out.


I think careful observers of Pakistani politics have learned the hard way to not let Zardari boggle the mind any more.

Anon752 and Majaz:

Thanks for that.


Opponents of game theory unite! We have nothing to lose but bad political science!


I'm very interested in Sherry's thoughts to be honest. She was clearly closer to BB than AZ. And she's not stupid, bless her heart. So I really want to know what she thinks about all this. In fact, if I had to choose 3 public figures in Pakistan whose diaries I would want to read, I think the list would look like:

1. Shaikh Rashid Ahmed
2. Sherry Rehman
3. Altaf Hussain (just to see how he spends all that free time)

Anonymous said...

Zardari is the devil !!

Rabia said...

I think what happened was unfortunate, especially governor rule, but the thing I don't get is (and I think Irfan Hussain mentions it in his column today) how it's considered "power-grabbing" of AZ to resist restoring Iftikhar Chaudhry given Iftikhar Chaudry's attempts to overturn the NRO in October 2007. It would have been political suicide for Zardari to have restored him.

Same goes for getting rid of 58 2 (b).

Ahsan said...


Those moves weren't power-grabbing but power-securing. This latest move is power-grabbing. And he's done it at the expense of the most popular man in Pakistan, as well as at the expense of Pakistan's wafer-thin stability. At a time when Pakistan faces more crises than one cares to count, AZ--as always--cares only about himself.

Rabia said...

"This latest move is power-grabbing."
yeah, true.

Clovis said...

An excellent post, really illustrates the mentality and methodology of Zardari. This current move by Zardari reminds one of the brazen power-grabbing tactics of his predecessor, Musharraf. Also, just like Musharraf did, Zardari I think has overestimated the reach of his power, and overplayed his hand to his own detriment. And this I feel makes him even more vulnerable than Musharraf was, because, heck at least, Musharraf had an army to back him up through most of his political misadventures. I wanted to know what your thoughts are on the army's involvement/interest in this power-grab and its fallout. Also, one theory I have heard from several sources is that this move had a lot to do with Zardari's concerns regarding the Lawyers' March, so how, if at all, do you think that could be effected?

javed ali said...

Ruthless people criticize Zardari to destroy his image. He became President of Pakistan with big majority. Leading Pakistan in these tough times was not easy and that is what is done by Zardari. Even the opposition in Pakistan is not ready to face the challenge. Who could deny that President Zardari saved the country? Who refused to compromise with those who wanted him to sign a confession and leave the country, like Nawaz Sharif and his family did after reaching a deal with Musharraf, it was Zardari! Confessions of Brig Imtiaz have forced other intelligence officers to admit their role in destroying democracy in Pakistan, and establishing that Zardari’s name has been trashed for about 20 years to force Benazir Bhutto out of politics and to destroy the credibility of PPP. We must not adopt a dubious attitude, and give due credit to our President.