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Sunday, December 3, 2023

Asif Zardari’s arrest: Political Implications?

Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the 11th former President of Pakistan, has been arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) after his bail application was rejected by the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Monday. What is his future and how will this affect Bilawal, PPP and Pakistan's politics? GVS analyses

News Desk |

On Monday, 10th June 2019, Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s ex-President and Co-Chairman Pakistan People’s Party, was arrested by National Accountability Bureau (NAB) from his residence called “Zardari House” in F-8 Sector of Islamabad. His arrest was on cards for some time in what is commonly referred to as the “Fake Accounts Case”. Now since he is finally arrested political circles and media pundits speculate feverishly on the implications of this arrest for Zardari, his son and Pakistani politics.

Zardari, his sister, Faryal Talpur, and close aides are accused of money-laundering, of billions of rupees, through the creation of fake bank accounts. NAB has apparently been able to establish transaction details between Asif Zardari and his aides and what is called, “Omni Group” headed by his close aide, Anwar Majeed. Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) had started investigating strange but large banking transactions in 2016. Ch. Nisar Ali Khan was then the federal interior minister; in his media briefings he had hinted towards the involvement of Asif Ali Zardari but little progress was made in the case till the end of Nawaz Sharif era. Nawaz was sacked by Supreme Court of Pakistan in the Panama Case on 28th July, 2017.

Nawaz’s disappearance from the scene probably removed whatever influence was hindering the investigation. Matter reached the top court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered to constitute a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe into the matter. The top court ordered the formation of the JIT on the recommendations of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). The FIA presented its report on the 28th August and recommended the court to form a JIT.

JIT came up with some shocking facts which demanded further inquiry and careful examination of the assets owned by the former president and his sister Faryal Talpur. The JIT also recommended placing the names of 172 people on the ECL including former president, his sister, and party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. However, the apex court directed the government to exclude the names of Mr. Bilawal and Chief Minister Sindh, Mr. Syed Murad Ali Shah. Later on, the case was taken up by the NAB to file the reference after further probe.

If PPP is able to use the Sindhi card and successfully achieves its desired ends, there is going to be more chaos and political instability in the country since there is already a debate going on the emergence and rise of the PTM.

Zardari’s defense so far?

Since then, former President and his party have used an indirect approach in their defense. They have avoided commenting on the substance of the case and its details and have instead focused on the political motivations of prosecution, PTI govt. and the hidden forces behind these cases – which is often a euphemistic reference towards Pakistan’s establishment. Several arguments have been advanced.

Initially, Zardari, his son Bilawal and other PPP leaders argued that the party was being targeted because it introduced the 18th amendment, which has empowered provinces and hence strengthened federation in Pakistan. The PPP kept on saying that the government wanted to eradicate the said amendment from the constitution. While PTI, and sections of media, have often expressed some reservations on 18th Amendment especially in areas of health and eduction but media and public were unable to discern any serious attempt to do change anything. This argument, thought still advanced by Bilawal, has lost all its steam.

In last few weeks, the former president started hinting that he and his party are being targeted as it belongs to Sindh. While PPP has ruled Sindh, since most of the time since early 1970’s but province is believed to be suffering from grievances since the hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979 in a murder case. It helped PPP to seek the attention of nationalists however, overall, it failed to provide the PPP chairman with his intended outcomes.

Zardari’s son Bilawal, has been more active and robust in attacking the govt. and the system on almost every possible issue. He has been active attacking Imran Khan govt. for dictatorial tendencies, incompetence, for inflation, for failing the poor people and in last few days he strongly defended the PTM leaders – Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir – in what is believed to be a move to put pressure on Pakistan’s military establishment.

It was widely believed that Zardari and his party wanted to pressurize Imran Khan government, judiciary and the military establishment to find some way out of their cases and legal troubles. Bilawal also invited Maryam Nawaz, on an Iftar dinner to forge a common ground against the government. But it appears that all these strategies have not delivered – at least no so far.

Political Reactions on Zardari Arrest

On the eve of Zardari’s arrest on 10th June, reaction from PPP and other parties was muted. Zardari slipped out of the court before police and NAB authorities could arrest him. Dramatic scenes were shown live on Pakistan’s 30 plus News channels when police surrounded his residential complex, called Zardari House, near F-8 Markaz in Islamabad, but despite the drama continuing for almost two hours few PPP workers were seen. Small crowds did appear at few points across Sindh, raised slogans, burnt tyres and blocked roads but reactions were self limiting and crowds dissipated quickly. PPP rules Sindh.

A brief debate took place in Pakistan’s National Assembly where PPP leaders like Shazia Atta Marri, from Sindh, made an angry speech demanding Zardari’s production in house but it overall it was lackluster. Shahbaz Sharif, of PMLN, leader of the combined opposition, who had just returned back from London after several weeks, made brief reference towards Zardari and argued that given his continuing cooperation with NAB he should not have been arrested – but quickly change the topic to Palestine, Kashmir and load shedding. It was obvious that he did not want to lend much support to Zardari at this point.

What Political Commentators think? 

GVS approached Dr. G-M Pitafi, a Lahore-based academic and political commentator, for his comments on the arrest of Zardari. “Zardari was expected to be arrested. It is not something which was unexpected. However, it has some serious implications for the future of this country.

Read more: NAB arrests Zardari in fake bank accounts case

“I believe that the narrative of the opposition that in present Pakistan selective accountability is being done to target pro-democracy civilian leaders has become dominant and persuasive,” explained Dr. Pitafi. He believes that the arrest of Zardari is going to create more challenges for the government since Nawaz Sharif is already behind the bars. “In such a situation the narrative to be built by the opposition is more important than the reality on ground,” he added.

If PPP is able to use the Sindhi card and successfully achieves its desired ends, there is going to be more chaos and political instability in the country since there is already a debate going on the emergence and rise of the PTM. In such a situation, if a national party joins the narrative, the situation is bound to transform from bad to worse.

It is believed that the government dealing with such an economic crisis cannot afford to entangle itself with protesters in Lahore or Islamabad since it’ll directly impact its economic plan.

Nadeem Malik, TV Anchor, and political analyst, also pointed out that the arrest of Zardari in a situation where the budget is going to be presented and there is a constant economic downfall, the opposition is planning to launch an anti-government campaign and a reference has been filed against a senior judge of the Supreme Court, which must be worrisome for the incumbent government.

Zardari’s Future? 

Some analysts believe that the PPP and other opposition parties shall use the same old narrative of democracy under threat with some new (manufactured) evidence to get support of the masses. And the real test of the government is how will it present its case? Others doubt that this old narrative ‘democracy under threat’ will sell at this stage in Pakistan’s political history – given the overwhelming debate around corruption and financial melt down since the Panama case of 2016.

Read more: Zardari warns “Go Imran Go” slogans to echo across the country

Analysts believe that the PPP does not have street power in Punjab. But if it decides to stand by the PML-N and takes part in the upcoming anti-government campaign, the situation for the PM Khan-led government will become challenging. It is believed that the government dealing with such an economic crisis cannot afford to entangle itself with protesters in Lahore or Islamabad since it’ll directly impact its economic plan. Moreover, the arrest of Zardari has almost confirmed that there is going to be a movement against the government sooner or later. But will this be meaningful or sustainable? Because many analysts, on Pakistan’s multiple TV channels, argue that to most public, and party workers, its clear that Sharif and Zardari families are struggling to save themselves from serious corruption cases and have no solution for the economic challenges being faced by the public.

Some analysts like Haroon Rashid, on 92 News, was wondering aloud that “what happened to Maulana Fazal ur Rehman?” Maulana few weeks ago had threatened “million march” on Islamabad, however for the past few days he has not been seen or heard. GVS spoke to a an important source few weeks ago who had commented cynically that, “Maulana will probably never arrive”. Its believed that Maulana might have struck some concessions some where, will not other politicians do the same? Perhaps Zardari has been left alone – finally at the fag end of his life.

Asif Ali Zardari is reportedly sick as per media reports and is suffering from various ailments – including Parkinsonism. However the police medical board that examined him after his arrest on 10th June confirmed that he was fit and did not suffer from any serious condition. But irrespective of this, Zardari is now old, weak and wanted his son to take over his mantle for sometime. Bilawal, in recent months, has appeared as a political leader in his own right and if there is no sustainable political campaign at this stage – which looks unlikely – then Zardari will like to strike the last bargain of his life. A bargain for freedom and may be exist from Pakistan’s political scene. But this will not satisfy his multiple enemies; they will like him to cough up some billions before his disappearance. Most developments in Pakistan take place away from public eye. No one is expecting his legal challenges to affect the political career of his son: Bilawal Zardari Bhutto.