Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, has ended his 18-month-long self-exile and returned to the country, arriving in Karachi today. Zardari has come to help his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 28, take the party, recently relaunched as the “new PPP,” out of its inexorable slump.
The former President of Pakistan left the country after the paramilitary Rangers (Sindh), taking its cues from the Army high command, began its crackdown against terrorism and “terrorism-linked corruption” in Karachi, raiding provincial government offices and arresting bureaucrats and key allies, including Dr. Asim Hussain, Zardari’s close friend and a former federal minister for petroleum and natural resources.
Reacting to the Army action, viewed by many as targeting the PPP, as well as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Zardari hit out at the “generals” in a notoriously hard-hitting speech in Islamabad that necessitated his departure. His homecoming follows the appointment of a new Army chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa. But the Army appears not to have forgotten last year’s sensational slight. Hours shy of his arrival, the Rangers (Sindh) raided the offices in Karachi of one of Zardari’s personal friends, diverting cable news attention from the celebratory scenes at the Airport and signaling to Zardari that he shouldn’t get too comfortable.
Zardari’s return is also the result of national fatigue from the antiterrorism National Action Plan. Bilawal preceded his comeback and has tried to revive a party squeezed out of its Punjab stronghold. Meanwhile, guided from Dubai, the PPP has adopted an aggressive stance against the ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).
Bilawal recently put forth four demands to the incumbent PMLN: passage and implementation of a bill on the Panama Papers imbroglio; appointment of a dedicated foreign minister; reorganization of Parliament’s National Security Committee; and implementation of Zardari’s resolution on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor initiative. The demands appear meant to unseat Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but are intended really to soften Sharif and nudge him back to the spirit of 2006’s Charter of Democracy signed between Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.
Notching up pressure through Bilawal, Zardari has Sharif in a corner of sorts. Sharif has responded carefully by welcoming Zardari back with the proviso that he take his son off the hatchet job. The PPP keeps saying that Sharif betrayed the Charter of Democracy. In response, Sharif accuses Zardari of accepting the National Reconciliation Ordinance and making up with then-President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, thus absolving himself of appearing at the Supreme Court together with then-Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani to push the high-treason Memogate case against Zardari.
But Zardari is ready to deal any time for survival. He knows that when it comes to political bedfellows, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s fervid Imran Khan is less likely to appreciate his suppleness than Sharif, who can make concessions from his position of power—especially now that the threat to Sharif from the Army is generally perceived to have abated.