President Asif Ali Zardari, at the end of his term today, will be leaving office in a manner quite different from many presidents of the past. His five years in office saw none of the dramas or undemocratic struggles for power that we have become rather accustomed to — notably in that turbulent period stretching from 1988 to 1999, when four elected governments came and went. Each one of them was booted out undemocratically, unable to complete its mandated term in office, with presidents repeatedly using powers to send assemblies home.
President Zardari, given our past history, deserves credit for ensuring this did not happen and that the democratic transition we saw after the May 11 general election took place smoothly and without any hiccups. President Zardari also had the courage to take steps to ensure this becomes the norm for the future too, by giving up key presidential powers thereby altering the presidential role to a mainly ceremonial one. This is, of course, how things should be in a parliamentary democracy. The emphasis on the sovereign status of parliament, that we have seen repeated many times since 1988, when the outgoing president was elected to office, is also something we badly needed to hear. Yes, the five-year Zardari era saw many corruption scandals and other controversies. These were highly unfortunate. But now as he bows out of office, we need also to recall his role in devolving power to the provinces, a step that could prove vital to the future of our federation. Beyond this, the package of rights for Balochistan contained much that was good. As President Zardari himself has openly conceded, there was a failure in implementing the clause included in this, leaving Balochistan in a state of turmoil. As president, he also made an effort to go after militants, as marked by military operations that began after 2009. The fight against the Taliban and allied groups meant President Zardari, of course, spent much of his presidency behind high walls, somewhat reducing his role. From here, however, the moratorium he brought in on capital punishment had an effect, generating at least some debate on the sensitive matter, which continues even now, as the new government has shown its inclination to roll back the process and resume hangings.
President Zardari has been able to exit the presidential palace he occupied for the duration of his term with style, putting behind him the bickering with the Supreme Court and the other less savoury moments of his period in office. At the luncheon hosted for him by the prime minister and attended by senior members of both the present and past governments, as well as chief ministers, the chiefs of the armed services and others, the outgoing president spoke graciously, promising the PML-N government cooperation. This is, of course, befitting and we wonder if following his dignified departure, he would consider retirement from the treacherous world of politics. The fate meted out by political and practical realities to past presidents, including the late Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari, and also General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, suggests it may be wise for persons who have occupied the top office in the land to ensure they are able to maintain a status of honour within their land.
Right now, we do not know what President Zardari’s next moves will be: where he will go, what he will do. He may indeed feel obligated to serve the Pakistan Peoples Party in one way or the other. But whatever the future holds, Asif Ali Zardari has left in place important blocks and key reforms, returning the Constitution a few steps closer to the version that existed in 1973. Whether we will in the future be able to build on this and take our country forward is something that still needs to be seen, as an era, memorable in many ways, for both the wrong and the right reasons, comes to an end and Mr Zardari moves out of that large house on the hill.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2013.