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Pakistan on the Precipice

ISLAMABAD – Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari abruptly returned to Karachi on the morning of December 19, following a 13-day absence for medical treatment in Dubai, where he lived while in exile. The government issued no a formal statement about Zadari’s health, but his supporters disclosed that he had suffered a mild stroke, which left him unconscious for several minutes.

Zardari’s sudden return fueled speculation about his future, but, more importantly, about the future of civilian rule in Pakistan. His decision followed a three-hour meeting between Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the Pakistani army’s chief of the army. His choice of destination – Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and his political base, rather than Islamabad, the county’s capital – suggests the depth of the crisis now bubbling below the surface. 

Zardari has held power since 2008, having been elected eight months after the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto. Even after a constitutional amendment in 2010 made the prime minister the country’s chief executive, Zardari has continued to be the main decision-maker. His political rise is thus in keeping with South Asia’s tradition of quasi-democratic dynastic politics: he assumed leadership of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – founded in 1967 by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – and appointed his son Bilawal as the party’s co-chairperson, basing his decision on a handwritten will left by his wife. To underscore the link, the son was renamed Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

But, having deftly out-maneuvered his opponents for three years, Zardari seems to have misread the current political environment, for Pakistan is not the same country in which his wife and father-in-law wielded power. By trying to play by the old rules, he committed several mistakes that may ultimately cost him his job and the Bhutto family its hold on power.