8 February 2010
Farzana Shaikh

Dr Farzana Shaikh

Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


President Asif Ali Zardari and his entourage are said to be ritually killing one black goat a day to ward off 'the evil eye' and protect themselves from their enemies. The bizarre claims have fuelled speculation that President Zardari believes his days in office may be numbered and is planning to fight those who would oust him. If so, it could herald the onset of a wider power struggle involving key state institutions that would have damaging implications for a country still deeply embroiled in a war against Islamist militants and crippled by a deepening economic crisis.

Since being elected to a five-year term by the country's lawmakers in September 2008, President Zardari has found it hard to stamp his authority. Like his immediate predecessor, General Parvez Musharraf, who paid the price for being seen to be too close to the United States, President Zardari is in danger of falling victim to a mounting tide of fierce anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. Angered by the conduct of US policies - including drone missile strikes against militant bases in the north-west and claims of secret operations by the controversial US security firm, Blackwater - Pakistanis have turned against Zardari, accusing him of allowing the US to ride roughshod over the country's interests. A generally unfriendly media has played no small part in accentuating this mood of hostility against the president.

What is worse for Zardari is that, unlike Musharraf, he cannot count on the support of the army - arguably Pakistan's most powerful state institution. Long wary of Zardari, it reacted furiously when he sought last year to curb its powers and rein in the activities of its intelligence apparatus, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). No less infuriating for the military high command have been Zardari's attempts to seize the initiative and kick-start relations with India - a domain over which the army and its chiefs, most recently Musharraf, have long been accustomed to exercise their prerogative.

The prospect of a dangerous fall-out from this 'clash of institutions' has intensified since last December when the Supreme Court struck down a controversial amnesty dating from the Musharraf era, which freed Zardari and his closest associates from corruption charges. However, the court's judgement has since been questioned by Zardari and his Pakistan's People's Party (PPP), who suggest that it was politically motivated and intended to force Zardari's resignation. Although as president Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution under the constitution, the court's ruling threatens to widen the rift between the executive and the judiciary - a rift many regard as a legacy of Mr Musharraf's controversial dismissal of the Chief Justice in 2007.

Meanwhile, the potential gains of this simmering crisis will not be lost on Islamist militants battling security forces in Pakistan's north-western regions. While the decimation of their senior leadership, notably Baitullah Mehsud and his successor Hakeemullah Mehsud, may prove in time to be a grave setback, there is no indication yet that the Taliban will ease their violent campaign or refrain from deadly suicide attacks against innocent civilians. Indeed, they remain in every way a force to be reckoned with.

More than ever, the twin challenges posed to Pakistan by its crumbling economy and the undimmed vigour of its Taliban foes demand that all state institutions act in concert. Failure to do so could spell political and economic paralysis. That, in turn, would significantly hasten the pace of militant activity and widen its appeal across ever broader swathes of the country.