Despite a few missteps and some self-inflicted wounds like the Foreign Office fiasco on Pompeo-Imran phone conversation and Indian “dialogue” offer, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration is facing no major difficulty. The next big challenge is, of course, the presidential election due on September 4. If there was any chance of an upset, it has been averted, thanks to Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Asif Ali Zardari.
Now, the PTI is all set for Arif Alvi to become the president of Pakistan as polls close on September 4. After the Senate elections and the general elections on July 25, the presidential elections will wipe out the last relic of the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) administration. Interestingly, the PPP has once again played the role of facilitator in this regard by unilaterally nominating Aitzaz Ahsan as its candidate for the symbolic and ceremonial position in the state hierarchy.
Zardari even tasked the PPP leaders to persuade Maulana Fazal Rehman to support Aitzaz’s candidacy for president
The decision to pitch Aitzaz Ahsan came from nobody else but the party supremo Asif Ali Zardari who has been on the retreat since his infamous speech full of bravado, challenging General Raheel Sharif on June 16, 2015 in the national capital. His speech threatening the miltablishment to demolish them brick by brick has been followed by total capitulation in his bid to regain their confidence, one brick at a time. Soon after the speech, the former president left the country and returned after a year and a half, only after the new COAS had settled in the saddle.
The former president sensed the wrath of the militablishment against Nawaz Sharif and volunteered to chip in soon after the Panama scandal. The anti-Nawaz narrative of the PPP continued even through the general elections. Zardari publicly said many times that since no party would get a simple majority, his grip on 40 plus MNAs will help him play the role of king maker. The results of the general elections, however, took that out of the realm of the possibilities.
Now that Zardari is backed up against the wall as a result of the FIA investigation against him and his Faryal Talpur, the PPP has continued to facilitate the PTI administration, hoping they would get some relief on the probe.
Soon after the election, all parties except the PTI were furious over the “engineered” results. The PPP, too, added their voice to the chorus of vice crying foul. The first meeting of the future opposition bloc decided to pitch joint candidates for election of the speaker, deputy speaker and prime minister.
As the investigation continued, the first crack appeared when the former president put his foot down and ordered his party not to support the PML-N candidate Shehbaz Sharif despite the earlier decision by the newly formed alliance of the opposition, barely two days before the election of the speaker. Khurshid Shah and Yousaf Raza Gilani were dispatched to convey the decision to Shehbaz Sharif. Khurshid Shah felt stabbed in the back as the decision meant the PML-N withdrawing support for him but that did not happen. The PML-N stuck to its decision despite a clear announcement by the PPP that they would not vote for Shehbaz Sharif. To add insult to injury, the PPP showed up in the National Assembly on the day of the election for the prime minister with its young chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The PPP MNAs sat through the election of the prime minister but abstained from voting. When the time came to protest, the PPP did not join and this is how Imran Khan was smoothly installed as prime minister.
Now, the presidential election is upon us Again, a meeting was called in Murree to decide the presidential candidates. The PPP again pre-empted an opposition alliance by prematurely leaking the name of Aitzaz Ahsan as its candidate. When the meeting took place in Murree, the PPP leaders were criticised for the unilateral announcement, rightly dubbed as a ‘solo flight.’ The PPP leaders in the meeting had hard time defending the decision.
The opposition alliance gave a face saving to the PPP to back out on Aitzaz Ahsan as his nomination was like waving a red rag in front of a raging bull. Ahsan earlier been a blue-eyed boy of Nawaz Sharif during the 2007 Lawyers’ Movement but turned against him after his wife Bushra Aitzaz lost elections in 2013 against a PML-N candidate.
Earlier in the 2008 elections, however, Nawaz Sharif had even offered to not pitch any candidate against Aitzaz Ahsan if he chose to contest. This is the time when Aitzaz had condemned the National Reconciliation Ordinance and had fallen out with Zardari. In 2009, when the Punjab was under Governor rule imposed by late Salmaan Taseer and Nawaz Sharif had started a long march to Islamabad for restoration of the judiciary, his vehicle was chauffeured by Aitzaz Ahsan who had earlier provided the same services for deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
All that changed after 2013 elections. In the run up to Nawaz Sharif’s exit from office on July 28, 2017, Aitzaz hit the former premier hard, first by drafting the Terms of References (TORs) for the judicial probe which would force Nawaz Sharif into self-incrimination. When that did not happen, he attacked him hard day in and day out. The acrimony took an uglier turn when he raised questions about Sharif’s heart surgery in September 2016 in London. Then, another bout of toxic statements came when Begum Kulsoom being treated for cancer in London in June this year. Aitzaz questioned the very existence of her disease and accused Sharif of using her illness to avoid the verdict by the NAB court.
Given this background, the unilateral announcement by the PPP was a non-starter. In the last Murree meeting, the PPP was given a face saving by the opposition parties to give three names of the PPP to Shahbaz Sharif, so that he could pick anybody except Aitzaz Ahsan.
When the PPP leaders in the meeting tried to contact Asif Zardari, they could not get through. When they finally talked to him, Zardari refused to budge. The PML-N had even agreed on Yousaf Raza Gilani to become the next president while PPP leaders suggested Taj Haider and Khurshid Shah as well. To sweeten the deal, the PML-N also suggested replacing the current chairman Senate with someone from the PPP. However, ‘no’ was the answer by the former president who was determined to put up a candidate that would not be acceptable to the PML-N.
All attempts to dissuade him against Aitzaz failed. Zardari even tasked the PPP leaders to persuade Maulana Fazal Rehman to support Aitzaz’s candidacy.
In normal circumstances Asif Zardari would have had no problem with the Maulana, who had enjoyed his friendship for decades. Maulana has been an ally of both the PML-N and the PPP but after July 25 elections, Maulana is very angry with the militablishment since he lost on both National Assembly seats he had contested. He had even proposed to boycott the parliament and urged the opposition parties not to take oath. Zardari, who has already got the Sindh government back, was averse to the idea of staying out of the system and wanted to continue the policy of accommodation with both the militablishment and Imran Khan. His warm handshake and broad smile with Imran Khan in the parliament showed this new truth.
The recent raids on Khoski Sugar mills where the FIA claimed to have got hold of a digital and paper trail into accusations of money laundering have not helped either. The Supreme Court is breathing down the neck of the former president and his sister in the case. The hearing on the possible constitution of a JIT has been now put off till September 5, a day after the presidential election. It is clear that neither Aitzaz Ahsan nor Maulana Fazal Rehman will win the presidential contest. Will the former president and his sister survive the investigations? Will the PPP survive as a party led by Asif Zardari in its golden jubilee year? The jury is still out.