Whether you love him or hate him, you can never ignore him. Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s 11th President from 2008 to 2013, took over after the assassination of his wife, Pakistan’s charismatic and two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The country was in turmoil following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007, weeks before national elections. Zardari raised the cry of ‘Pakistan Khappay’ calming enraged supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Defying the odds, Zardari led the Pakistan Peoples Party to victory in the 2008 general election, and navigated his party through five tumultuous years, welding together a rocky coalition government and keeping the country’s relationship with the military on an even keel.
Often dismissed by detractors as being corrupt and incapable, Zardari surprised many by his astute handling of crises and maneuvering opposition parties onto his side. He played a pivotal role in bringing the leadership of other political parties together to force General (retd) Pervez Musharraf to resign as president. Soon after being elected, he launched the Benazir Income Support Programme which sought to reduce poverty by transferring cash to Pakistan’s needy families.
One of the most historic events of his tenure was the signing of the landmark 18th amendment into law which stripped the president of several discretionary powers and strengthened the provinces.
Zardari also launched several reforms to strengthen the rule of democracy in the country, including the FATA reforms, Aghaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan and the National Finance Commission Award. He also won popularity after signing two bills in 2011 that awarded strict punishments to those who committed crimes against women.
Born into a Baloch land-owning family in 1955, he completed his early education from Karachi and went on to Cadet College Petaro for high school. He rose to prominence after his marriage to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1987.
The marriage officially launched his career in Pakistan’s politics. He was a federal minister during two subsequent PPP tenures, initially holding the portfolio of environment and later of investment.
Currently, Zardari has taken on a more aggressive role on the country’s political landscape, given that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is on a weak wicket after the Supreme Court refused to give him a clean chit. The Pakistan Peoples Party has adopted a more vocal stand than earlier, demanding Sharif to step down.
Narratives: Both the government and the petitioners are happy with the Supreme Court (SC) verdict on Panama. While you have hailed the two senior judges who have virtually disqualified Nawaz Sharif, you have also demanded the prime minister resign. Is this merely your demand or will you seek to force his resignation?
Asif Ali Zardari (AAZ): We will definitely mount pressure on the government. Isn’t it ironic that both the complainant and the accused were seen eating mithai (sweets) after the verdict was announced? It made us a joke nationally and internationally. We had suggested to Imran Khan that he hold discussions with us, get a resolution passed from the Senate and then go to Supreme Court. But Imran Khan jumped the gun and decided to go to the SC himself. And now you’ve seen that it’s a 3/2 verdict – which is neither here nor there.
Narratives: Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto often said that there’s separate justice for Larkana and Lahore. You also expressed your hopelessness with the entire process. Raja Pervaiz Ashraf also said that had it been a PPP PM instead of Nawaz Sharif, the verdict would have been very different. What’s your take on this?
AAZ: Yes, that’s true. Had it been a PPP prime minister, he would have gone to jail by now. The judiciary took barely six minutes to dismiss Yousuf Raza Gilani (when he was the prime minister), asking him to resign.
Narratives: The general consensus seems to be that jiyalas (PPP’s ardent supporters) are unhappy with you in Punjab, due to which the popularity of the PPP has plummeted. The 2013 general election is cited as an indication of the party’s sinking fortunes. What are the reasons?
AAZ: We do not believe that election was conducted fairly. We did not have a point man in Punjab. The two judges of Punjab ‘very gently’ passed a judgment that the president happens to be non-political, although the President’s electoral house is more difficult than the prime minister’s. Despite that we accepted the result, albeit grudgingly.
We did not have faith in the election results because it is not possible to get a large number of votes in a mountainous region, for example, where polling stations are in distant or different places and geographically it is not possible to have such a big turnout.
If we ignore the ballot bags which were opened by party leaders Aitzaz Ahsan and Chaudhry Manzoor, and found to contain scrap paper, if we ignore the issues about who was involved in the conspiracy, no matter what yardstick you use, the election result was unacceptable.
But for the continuity of democracy, the Peoples Party supported them (the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz), because we didn’t want to derail Parliament, or set a precedent that could cause Parliament to break up in a non-democratic manner.
‘No matter what yardstick you use, the election result was unacceptable’
Narratives: The Peoples Party, once known as the country’s largest political party, has gradually been confined to Sindh. How will you regain popularity in Punjab?
AAZ: I disagree with your premise. Losing or winning an election, going forward or losing some ground is part of the game for political forces. There should be a level-playing field for all parties. There should be electoral reforms. The election should be free and fair, so people have confidence in the result and whichever party wins should also have the people’s mandate and be committed to working for the people. I believe that Mian Sahib (Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) doesn’t have that moral authority.
Narratives: The people vote for political parties based on their performance. Do you think your government in Sindh has been able to deliver? Are people happy with your party?
AAZ: The Pakistan Peoples Party has been contesting elections since it came into existence 50 years ago. We have competed in good and bad times; we have contended with dictators, remained incarcerated and yet contested polls. We are committed to the philosophy of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He accepted Shahadat (martyrdom) but he did not bend.
Benazir Bhutto also fought against the system to the very end until she laid down her life. So the process is continuing and the public is witness to everything that has been happening to us for years. And with today’s modern technology it will be seen even more. Pakistan Peoples Party will expand, not shrink.
Narratives: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf has consistently maintained that the 2013 general election was not fair. You have also said that it was a Returning Officers’ election. What kinds of electoral reforms do you think should be instituted?
AAZ: Our aim is to prevent misuse of ballot papers. Perhaps we can get the ballot papers printed at the United Nations or from international companies and maybe a thumb impression can be incorporated. We should make the most of modern technology in the electoral process.
The duration (of the balloting) could also be increased; if the process cannot be completed in 12 hours, then it could be stretched to 24 hours – we have no issues with that. People can sit, stand, wait, express their will, and vote for those candidates they believe will work for them and not those who simply rely on political posturing.
Narratives: Do you think this change will result in a fair election?
AAZ: We will definitely move towards transparency. There has even been controversy over the recent US elections, so it is difficult to have 100 percent transparency. Controversies occur all over the world.
You can reduce operational space for those forces that are threatening or harming the country by increasing security. Similarly, by adding polling security and thumb impressions, we can improve the process. A hundred percent can only be guaranteed by God, not by a human being.
‘Had it been a PPP prime minister, he would have gone to jail by now’
Narratives: Do you think reforms should be instituted in police and law enforcement agencies?
AAZ: Every institution needs reforms. With changing times, all institutions have to evolve, and with changing security threats modernisation is needed and the police also needs to be modernised.
When I went to China for the first time, we had signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) for safe cities. This is still not the case in all our cities. Nowadays, there’s a new concept of smart cities, which is a totally different concept. I think modern technology is the need of the hour.
I am not given the financial resources to establish peace in Karachi alone. The money is simply not there in the budget. The ratio of police personnel to population is very low. We don’t have enough resources to give them good remuneration and attract them to join the police service. In this age, it is not just a police desk job, they have to fight and deal with threats in which their lives are on the line.
We have to sit down together to solve this and we should have a national conference on security. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar has to understand that projects are of no use when there is no security.
Narratives: The PPP has always taken the lead when it comes to rights of women, taken steps to ensure representation of women, but failed to specify the process of designated seats for women. Women from underdeveloped and far-flung areas have been neglected. What do you have to say on this?
AAZ: In the Pakistan Peoples Party, women are chosen from a pool of workers. Our sisters and daughters who joined us back in 1988 from different areas of the country, have gradually become politically wise. In our last tenure, for the first time, we gave the speakership to a woman; our foreign minister was a woman; even our ambassador to Washington was a woman.
PPP’s own Prime Minister was a woman, who gave women worldwide a sense of empowerment and change through her charismatic personality.
Narratives: We would like to know your viewpoint on military courts. You put forward nine points on the issue, out of which there was an agreement on only four?
AAZ: We believed that the law be made on the pattern we recommended after consulting friends in the legal fraternity. But the government of the day or others didn’t have the same thinking, so be it.
In the memory of those friends, brothers, soldiers who sacrificed their lives, even Bibi Sahiba, we did not want it to be cited in history that the law was not made because of the Peoples Party and if it had been made, all issues would have been solved.
That’s why, in the greater national interest, we have voted for and accepted the military courts, but I don’t think it is a permanent solution. Prior to this, we had the military courts for two years, which in my opinion, had both advantages and disadvantages.
Now it is up to those institutions to assess and examine the impact. It is their responsibility to ascertain whether the military courts have been beneficial or not. If they have been of benefit, so much the better, and if not, then improve on the shortcomings.
‘For the continuity of democracy, the Peoples Party supported them, because we didn’t want to derail Parliament’
Narratives: Foreign debt has accumulated over the years but it’s not clear where the funds have been used. The government’s development goals are visible in the form of infrastructure projects—but have you seen something that’s been done for the prosperity of the people?
AAZ: They claim that they do everything for the prosperity of the people. We, in our tenure, borrowed from China at half a percent, the details of which are available on the Internet. Mian Sahib got the loan at eight percent.
Nowhere in the world are loans sought at such expensive rates, especially with a sovereign guarantee. We are not a public limited company that will go bankrupt.
There might be weaknesses in our economic system, resulting in inflation. This government’s financial policies are beyond my understanding. Our backbone, agro-economy, is nose-diving.
Narratives: Let’s discuss the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which was your brainchild. Under CPEC, the government has initiated many energy projects nationwide. Do you think the energy crisis will end if these projects are launched?
AAZ: I think we will have to review coal-fired power projects, especially given the environment. If you set up coal power plants at the Balochistan coastline and near the border, then Karachi will have to face the environmental impact. Benazir Bhutto wanted to bring 4,000 MW of electricity, but (former president) Farooq Leghari derailed our energy policy. Then came the PML-N government and bought all the power plants – they had eyed these plants from the start.
Narratives: Karachi, despite having a population of more than 20 million, still doesn’t have a mass transit system. Public transport is either non-existent or in very bad shape?
AAZ: I agree with you and we are also introducing modern buses in Karachi. But Karachi needs to have flyovers; it needs to go vertical, which is a norm in any megapolis of the world. You just can’t broaden the infrastructure, nor can you increase your police force.
High-rises is a concept for Karachi. I think Karachi’s population is more than 20 million. According to a study, it will double after ten years, and Karachi will assume the status of the world’s most congested city. I believe the private sector should be encouraged to work for Karachi.
Narratives: In Karachi, some political parties with a lot of street power – the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Pak Sarzameen Party – are protesting against various issues. Your party is responsible for the province; how do you see the situation unfolding?
AAZ: We all know which party converted a peaceful city into a city of the TT pistol; who the pioneer of the extortion racket is; and whose leader has accused the party of being involved in China cutting, (the practice of dividing State and public property, earmarked for parks and open spaces, into smaller plots for commercial sale). Now the mayor of Karachi has objected to our handing over a park to a private company. We will also file a case against it.
‘We, in our tenure, borrowed from China at half a percent. Mian Sahib got the loan at eight percent’
Narratives: What is the controversy behind the Bin Qasim Park reportedly being handed over to the private entity, Bahria Town, which will use it for commercial purposes?
AAZ: The head of Bahria Town (Malik Riaz) has constructed a tunnel for citizens to use on which he has spent one billion rupees – maybe more. He did not ask the city of Karachi or the Sindh government for any money for that. The public is the ultimate beneficiary.
The basic philosophy was introduced in the Ayub Khan era of handing over hospitals and schools on adoption to non-government entities. It is not the business of the government to run enterprises; it’s basically the job of the citizens and the private sector. Malik Riaz is building parks, safari parks and golf courses. All of the US and Germany were built by private entrepreneurs.
Similarly, the Thar coal project is based on a public-private partnership, with 51 percent of the money having been invested by the Sindh government while the rest by other private companies. I want the private sector to play a role. Those who crib about Karachi being a dingy and dirty city, let me clarify that it’s a city of more than 20 million people, which is perhaps the most populated city of the world.
Narratives: Is the string of meetings you have had with Balochistan leaders, a political or electoral strategy?
AAZ: Since the Ayub Khan-era and even afterwards, every seven, 10 years, an insurgency has been ignited in Balochistan. We also tried to talk to friends during our tenure, both outside and inside Pakistan. Those sitting outside do not trust us; they are frightened as to who will take responsibility. Some of those sitting inside are ready to listen to us, while others aren’t.
I believe Balochistan needs a healing touch; the Baloch need a personality they could trust. Since I gave them the budget, held a dialogue with them, gave them rights, I believe I can enhance their confidence in the federation. I would like to give Balochistan incentives by giving them water, by educating them about new ways of agriculture, and by building industrial parks.
Narratives: A few days ago, an American representative said the US will intervene if relations between India and Pakistan turn dangerously sour, and an attempt will be made to sort out the Kashmir issue. Do you think such efforts will come to fruition?
AAZ: Kashmir is the United Nations’ oldest resolution. If the world becomes serious, then India is not so powerful that it will not hold a plebiscite at the cost of offending the world.
‘We all know which party converted a peaceful city into a city of the TT pistol (and) who the pioneer of the extortion racket is’
Narratives: India is enhancing its nuclear capacity and also threatened a first strike. What are your thoughts?
AAZ: I am really concerned by this situation and I think those in power should assess it and raise the issue in the United Nations. This doesn’t augur well. But we are not as spineless as India thinks we are.
Narratives: Our government looks quite submissive as far as India is concerned and is reluctant to take this issue to any forum. How do you view this?
AAZ: In this situation, we will go to the world and plead our case. Pakistan’s political opposition can also go collectively. We will also talk to the establishment. We have exerted a lot of political pressure to appoint a foreign minister. We have become a laughing stock in the world.
Several embassies in Karachi and Islamabad are monitoring the situation and sending in their reports every day. The nuclear issue is a very difficult, sensitive and touchy subject – because both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers.
Narratives: Regarding India’s threat of a first strike, doesn’t the situation require the Opposition to start sending its delegations to the world right now?
AAZ: This will exactly be my advice because the government is just incapable of managing it. Whatever the government’s expediencies, we will have to do something – after all, it’s our country. We have to live and die here. I have neither closed my doors, nor do I think doors should ever be closed in politics.