As Pakistan burns under the increasing stress of challenges, ranging from terrorist violence to the threat of an onslaught on Islamabad by a rapidly emerging challenger to the established order, President Asif Ali Zardari remains absent from the scene.
For more than three weeks, Pakistan’s top leader has confined himself to Karachi, reportedly attending to affairs surrounding his ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). His absence has even sparked rumours of Zardari keeping himself safely away from Pakistan’s mountainous north, perhaps under spiritual advice.
Zardari’s absence from the capital is not just a matter of a missing individual. Indeed, the presidency, which is supposedly the symbol of national unity, not only remains empty it has become partisan and simply unable to tackle one of the worst periods surrounding Pakistan.
For many, the threat of an onslaught led by Tahirul Qadri, the head of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) to storm Islamabad is indeed a timely negation of Pakistan’s ruling order. For the moment, it is impossible to judge the fate of Qadri’s movement. He has promised to stage a ‘sit-in’ in central Islamabad to press for an immediate dissolution of the parliament, followed by credible elections. His demands centre on a robust empowerment of Pakistan’s election commission to block politicians with tainted backgrounds from returning to the ruling fold.
In response, the Zardari-led ruling order has done what it knows best. Entry to Islamabad’s so called ‘red zone’ — the area surrounding the parliament and the diplomatic quarters — has been blocked. Yesterday, the authorities in Islamabad were busy digging trenches at spots in the central part of the city where officials suspect demonstrators will camp till their demands are eventually met.
However, behind this latest challenge to the ruling order lies a catastrophe symbolised nowhere more than the empty presidency. For Zardari, a typical response to moments of crisis has indeed been simply to step out of the limelight. Previously too, as Pakistanis battled the fallout from unprecedented rainfall and floods some years ago, Pakistan’s president simply vanished from the scene, undertaking an ill-advised European tour.
Today, Pakistan is engulfed with fast-mounting challenges as the president camps in Karachi, apparently sorting out the interests of his ruling party.
This state of play is as much indicative of a leadership crisis as the crisis that surrounds Pakistan. Yesterday, there was another powerful reminder of the escalating uncertainty in the face of Pakistan’s leadership crisis. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf finally responded to more than two days of rapidly-growing uncertainty, following the massacre of more than 85 people in the south-western city of Quetta in a brazen terrorist attack last Thursday. Ashraf ordered the chief minister of Balochistan province, of which Quetta is the provincial capital, to finally return home from a trip abroad while also ordering one of his cabinet ministers to head to Quetta. Ashraf appeared to be jolted into action only after the family members of the victims refused to bury the dead and chose to keep their corpses out in the open in Quetta till control of the city was handed over to troops from the Pakistan Army.
This act of popular defiance towards ruling politicians finally confirmed an obvious point — the public’s confidence in the ruling order has simply vanished.
Looking ahead, Zardari may seek to make amends by returning to Islamabad, though the moment of mending fences may be over.
Even if Qadri is blocked from travelling to Islamabad, he has already made a vital point. Qadri’s condemnation of Pakistan’s ruling order and the need for swift reforms to halt aggravating security conditions as well as a faltering economy is the stuff that should have been central to the country’s political discourse.
Instead, Zardari and the ruling PPP, as well as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, have been much too busy seeking to block Qadri without convincingly responding to his message.
Going forward, Qadri has already ignited a new way of thinking in a country where the mainstream politicians, caught busily protecting their petty interests, are just not capable of overcoming Pakistan’s worst challenges. While Zardari stays away from the mountainous north in favour of the plains of southern Pakistan, his ability to lift the credentials of the ruling order may well have just eroded.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.