Islamabad diary: Making sense of Zardari’s sojourn
That danger the PPP is facing is one the president seems ready to fight - but only from a distance.
When the coup comes, will it be a silent one or will it, like most coups do, make lots of noise? Is President Asif Ali Zardari in Dubai for genuine medical reasons or is he seeking a safe haven? Is it the army that is gunning for him or is it the Supreme Court, or perhaps a combination of the two?
Such idle gossip seems to accompany nearly every elected government in Pakistan but this time there is a difference. Usually the rumours are spread by the military and their cheerleaders in the media. Now, however, most of the coup talk is being pushed by the PPP itself. The conventional wisdom in Islamabad is that talk of a military takeover is meant to test the waters before the coup actually takes place. The PPP has flipped that equation and is hyping the prospect of a coup simply to stave one off.
PPP’s spin doctors are making the claim that Zardari has been trying to assert his authority against the military as part of the fallout over memogate. According to them, in the infamous phone call with US President Barack Obama, where Zardari was described as being ‘incoherent’ by Foreign Policy magazine, the president actually told Obama that he disagreed with the military’s decision to boycott the Bonn Conference and felt that Pakistan should attend.
Zardari’s sudden departure, they say, was part of the same campaign to resist the army and that he will stay put if the army’s investigation of memogate attempts to attach the blame on him or if the Supreme Court decides it is going to ignore presidential immunity in the National Reconciliation Ordinance case.
What seems like a muddled PPP strategy, with the rationale for Zardari’s Dubai sojourn seemingly changing every day, reflects both – the party flailing around as it tries to save its government and the fact that very few people in the party seem to know what’s going on. Their explanations are as speculative as anyone else’s, for the simple fact that Zardari’s tight-knit band of trusted advisers has closed ranks around the president to the exclusion of everyone else.
And everyone in the PPP says that Zardari is not one to give up without putting up a strong fight. That Bilawal returned to Pakistan from Dubai the very day the president flew out to the emirate is being touted as a sign of Zardari’s willingness to take on the army.
An added wrinkle in this drama is the extraordinarily-long meeting held between Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter. Soon after this meeting, it was announced that Robin Raphael, who is an adviser to AfPak representative Marc Grossman and has long experience of a country in which her husband was killed in the plane crash along with Zia-ul-Haq, will be visiting the country. This visit, say PPP sources, is meant to plead the case for former ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani, and ensure he is kept out of jail and possibly allowed to leave the country.
As confident as the PPP sounds about survival, though, their worried tones and intricate plotting hints at a clear and present danger. That danger is one the president seems ready to fight - but only from a distance.