x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Staying in office not the same as governing well

Having remained in office for five years, Asif Ali Zardari has accomplished something that has eluded Pakistan since independence ¿ the peaceful transfer of power.

Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari has accomplished a feat previously unknown in his country: on Saturday he completed a five-year term of office. The peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another has not happened since independence; every previous leader brought to power by the ballot box has been removed without it.

Elections are set for May; Mr Zardari will preside over a caretaker government until then. The new lawmakers will name the next president.

He was born to privilege as are so many Pakistani politicians, but Mr Zardari is known as "the accidental president" because he was for years very much a sideshow to his immensely popular wife Benazir Bhutto.

While she was prime minister, he avoided the limelight - although his business dealings were a recurring thorn in her side. That all changed after she was assassinated in 2007. Mr Zardari became chairman of the party she led and then, in 2008, Pakistan's president.

His accomplishment in the five years since then is a personal success, since it would have been impossible without his knack for finding support when he needs it.

Lasting is not the same as governing well, however. Throughout Mr Zardari's half-decade in power, he has often seemed likely to be toppled by one or more of three forces. The first of these is public opinion, seething over mismanagement of the economy, corruption, an inability to fix basic water and power infrastructure, an inability to quell the problem of internal terrorism and some foolish moves by the security agencies, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The second is the Supreme Court, a guarantor of constitutionality that has, in the person of the Supreme Court Justice Iftikar Chaudhry, proved a regular source of trouble for him.

The final force is the military, which knows how to depose a civilian government by force.

Yet Mr Zardari's achievement also says something about the failure - so far - of his political rivals. His Pakistan People's Party now seems hopelessly low in public support - 14 per cent, by one recent poll. In Pakistan's crowded electoral field, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party are especially optimistic about the May results.

It cannot be said that Mr Zardari leaves the country in good shape. But if his time in office has been a first step on the long road to democratic stability, it will be well-remembered. In a country as tumultuous as Pakistan, five is a grand old age.