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President Elect Asif Ali Zardari as I know him…

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Islamabad (Imran Y. CHOUDHRY) :- Former Press Secretary to the President, Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France, Former MD, SRBC Mr. Qamar Bashir analysis :
President-elect Asif Ali Zardari has secured a significant mandate from both provincial and national assemblies, excluding the KP assembly, which is a comprehensible outcome. However, his forthcoming tenure may differ substantially from his previous stint, characterized by extensive executive authority, especially with his close ally, Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, as Prime Minister. With Shahbaz Sharif assuming the role of Prime Minister this time, Zardari may encounter a different dynamic in the presidency, notwithstanding the lavish privileges inherent to the position.

The President House, although unassuming from its exterior, sprawls over an area equivalent to an entire sector of Islamabad. It encompasses official residences for staff, stables, military accommodations, a swimming pool, gym, car workshop, and expansive lawns. Manned by thousands of full-time and support staff, it provides logistical support to the President from all branches of the armed forces, including dedicated aircraft, helicopters and boats and a dedicated security division. The President, as the supreme commander of armed forces, enjoys extensive logistical backing and protocol assistance, with the Office divided into Public and Personal sides, each overseen by senior officials.

During my tenure in the Information Ministry, I held the position of Director Media under President Asif Ali Zardari from January 2013, and later served as Press Secretary and Media Advisor to President Alvi from May 30th, 2022. Working closely with President Zardari alongside Mr. Farhat Babar, the media advisor at the time, provided me with firsthand insight into Zardari’s political acumen. In comparison, President Alvi, unlike Zardari, demonstrated a different approach, highlighting distinct political styles between the two leaders.

Asif Ali Zardari possessed a remarkable knack for garnering loyalty through genuine connection rather than coercion. His talent lay in winning over individuals by earning their trust and respect. Zardari demonstrated a keen eye for selecting top-tier bureaucrats like Salman Farooqi, among others, who remained steadfast in their service to him. Their dedication played a pivotal role in infusing quality and depth into his decision-making process. Zardari fostered an atmosphere of open dialogue and mutual regard within his team, actively seeking their input on policy matters. He valued their expertise and provided clear direction, effectively leveraging their insights for effective policy implementation.

During Yousaf Raza Gilani’s tenure as Prime Minister under President Asif Ali Zardari, the presidency wielded extensive control over the government. Nearly every decision, regardless of its magnitude, required presidential approval.

Asif Ali Zardari’s official routine typically commenced around 1 pm and concluded by 5 pm on regular days. During the initial working hour dedicated to official matters, Mr. Salman Farooque and the military secretary would handle official business. By 5 pm, Zardari would retreat to his residence, situated just a few yards away from his office within the President’s House. There, he would often meet with workers, delegations, and party leaders. However, his engagements with close political colleagues and leaders often extended late into the night, with Zardari usually retiring to bed in the early hours of the following morning.

Despite being perceived as not entirely free from corruption, Asif Ali Zardari consistently seized every opportunity during public and official meetings at the Presidency to address the dire living conditions of the most impoverished. Whether engaging with politicians, bureaucrats, or delegations from civil society, he never missed a chance to advocate for the amelioration of the plight of the poorest of the poor.

This mindset was the primary impetus behind the establishment of the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) in 2008, which has since become Pakistan’s leading social safety net initiative. Designed to alleviate poverty and uplift marginalized communities, particularly focusing on empowering women, who disproportionately face economic challenges, BISP targets impoverished households. Through cash transfers, the program provides a vital lifeline to beneficiary families, enabling them to meet fundamental needs such as food, healthcare, and education expenses. Additionally, BISP offers opportunities for skills development, vocational training, and access to microfinance, further enhancing its impact on poverty reduction and socioeconomic empowerment.

His people-oriented approach was evident in the PPP government’s divergence from completing the IMF program, as it resisted implementing the IMF’s stringent demands, such as subsidy cuts. Instead, it allocated Rs. 70 billion to support over 7.5 million needy families through the Benazir Income Support Program. Furthermore, the government raised government officials’ wages by up to 158%, maintained utility prices at affordable levels, refrained from imposing harsh taxes on the populace, and reinstated thousands of dismissed government workers.

Additionally, the government prioritized women’s empowerment through various schemes and legislation, including anti-harassment laws. Notably, Pakistani media enjoyed freedom of speech, enabling them to critique government officials and ministers, thereby amplifying the voices of the general public.

One of the notable achievements of the PPP was its commitment to empowering women and protecting their rights. The government resumed trade union activities and ensured their security. Industrial workers were incentivized with 500,000 shares to boost productivity. Additionally, the implementation of the Benazir Tractor Scheme provided affordable tractors to impoverished villagers, revitalizing Pakistan’s struggling primary sector. This initiative reportedly led to a remarkable surge in the rural economy, from 50 billion rupees in 2008 to 800 billion rupees by 2013.

During his presidency, despite facing numerous political challenges, Asif Ali Zardari achieved significant legislative milestones. The reinstatement of the 1973 constitution and the enactment of the 18th, 19th, and 20th amendments marked key developments that granted provincial autonomy and fortified democratic institutions. Initially, the full impact of the 18th amendment may not have been fully grasped by political elements or the establishment. However, it became apparent later that by enacting this amendment, Zardari had consolidated power not only for himself but also for his family, particularly in Sindh. As other politicians and the establishment belatedly realized the implications, it was already too late, as the center had ceded control to the provinces, notably benefiting Sindh and diminishing the influence of Punjab and the establishment.

With remarkable foresight, Asif Ali Zardari transferred significant presidential powers to parliament, effectively curbing the president’s ability to dismiss governments and dissolve assemblies. This move closed the door on unilateral actions by the president to remove elected governments. Additionally, he streamlined the process for appointing caretaker governments and granted greater autonomy to the Election Commission of Pakistan, further strengthening democratic processes and institutions.

In the final days of his presidency, Asif Ali Zardari visited Iran and signed an agreement to bring cost-effective gas to Pakistan through the Pak-Iran gas pipeline, despite opposition from the US and the West. He defended his actions by highlighting the unfairness of their reluctance to invest in Pakistan while discouraging trade and investment from China and Iran. Zardari also signed an agreement with China and entrusted the Gwadar Port to them, a move made after Singapore failed to deliver desired outcomes.

Even though President-elect Asif Ali Zardari may not wield the same level of power as he did during his previous tenure, his position as the figurehead of the government, judiciary, parliament, and supreme commander of the armed forces still holds significant influence. With this authority, he stands in a strong position to further solidify PPP’s dominant control over Sindh, while also potentially expanding political influence into Punjab, Balochistan and KP provinces.

Moreover, his presidency could pave the way for a future ascension to the premiership by his political heir Bilawal Bhutto and Asifa Bhutto, particularly if current Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif fails to deliver, or in the aftermath of the next general elections. Zardari’s return to power carries the potential for far-reaching impact and strategic maneuvering within Pakistan’s political landscape.

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