ISLAMABAD: The times are such in Pakistan.
President Asif Zardari flew to Dubai on Tuesday triggering a seemingly endless stream of contradictory statements from his top aides, speculation from ‘insiders’ and ‘experts’, and wild conjecture that the county’s powerful security establishment was plotting to oust the embattled leader from office, leading to a frenetic day for those following the story.
What seemed to be lost in all the rumours was that the president had travelled for treatment for his heart condition.
A steady flow of contradictions
The first statement from the Presidency on Tuesday said Zardari had left for Dubai to visit his children and also to undergo some medical tests. According to the president’s personal physician, Colonel Salman, the proposed medical tests were of a routine nature.
It was reported by private television channels that Zardari was first taken to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology (AFIC) in Rawalpindi for an initial check-up and it was there that he was advised to proceed to Dubai.
The government initially denied that the president had visited a hospital before leaving the country by air-ambulance, but later admitted that he went to AFIC.
Zardari’s spokesperson Farhatullah Babar, however, denied reports that the president was first taken to any hospital for tests or treatment. Instead, Babar said the president held meetings with PPP leaders to review security arrangements for Ashura.
By Wednesday the story had been modified – enough to set the rumour mill in full motion.
Mustafa Khokhar, the human rights minister, made the blood pressure of political observers rise to alarming levels when he said Zardari had suffered a “minor heart attack” and was in Dubai for a small operation. Khokhar added that, despite media reports, there was “no question of any resignation” by Zardari.
Meanwhile, a statement from the prime minister’s office said Zardari went to a Dubai hospital at the insistence of his children, who live there. A Dubai-based member of the PPP, Mian Muneer Hans, said the president landed in Dubai around 7:30pm on Tuesday. “He walked to his car in the airport and was not in an ambulance.”
The Presidency still claimed it was business as usual. “Reports about the president’s health and activities are speculative, imaginary and untrue,” said the president’s spokesperson, denying a number of comments on television portraying different political scenarios.
PPP seeks to reassure country through Bilawal
Late on Wednesday, it emerged that the president’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – also the chairman of the PPP – had arrived in Islamabad and chaired a meeting of the party’s top leaders in the evening.
According to political observers, this particular move appeared to be an attempt at showing the nation that there would be no political vacuum even if Zardari had to step down.
An official statement of the meeting’s conclusions was released – curiously, there was no mention of the armed forces or issues related to defence, despite the current situation revolving around the country’s heightened security situation.
Intrigue, conjecture and denials
Military sources told The Express Tribune that Zardari had a meeting with a top military official while at the AFIC in Rawalpindi and hinted that he might have had an exchange of “harsh words”. Although unconfirmed, this visitor is believed to have been army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
On Wednesday a US magazine reported that Zardari might resign due to ill-health. In its report, The Cable quoted a former US government official saying that when US President Barack Obama spoke with Zardari recently regarding Nato’s killing of the 24 Pakistani soldiers, Zardari was “incoherent.”
The report claimed that Zardari was “feeling increased pressure over the Memogate scandal”, and quoted the official as having said: “The noose was getting tighter — it was only a matter of time,” expressing the growing expectation inside the US government that Zardari may be stepping down.
Another rumour doing the rounds said that the president was given two choices by the military: either to quit his brand of politics or face a trial under Article 6 of the Constitution that deals with high treason.
Islamabad was already abuzz with rumours that top military authorities had asked Zardari to shun high profile activities. Some commentators went to the extent that Zardari had nominated Senate Chairman Farooq Naek as his successor – though he was deemed unacceptable by the military.
However, senior members of the PPP rubbished this.
The president did take some desperate steps to give the impression that all was well, phoning Awami National Party chief Asfandyar Wali Khan about his plans to return.
Zardari has come under growing pressure over a memo allegedly written by close aide Husain Haqqani. The website of US magazine Foreign Policy reported that Zardari had been considering his resignation over the Memogate scandal.
There has been speculation that the ongoing row between the presidency and the military establishment had further intensified after the military came to know that the government had told the US it was ready to send representatives to the Bonn conference, but the military was standing in the way.
Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum, visited Zardari in hospital and wished him a “speedy recovery”.
(Read: The memo that opened the gates!)
(With additional input from wires)
Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2011.