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,
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.