Is Zardari the best hope for a new Pakistan?

Given the discussions about Afghanistan, I thought this was interesting, Jerome.

Yesterday we issued our report card for Pakistan President Zardari's first year in office and, as we stated then, we are very impressed with the changes that we've seen under Zardari compared to previous Pakistani leaders. Militantism that was allowed to flourish under Pervez Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif, both of whom are now facing trial - Musharraf for constitutional violations and Nawaz Sharif for murder and corruption - is being attacked head on by the Zardari administration, an economy in shambles is being rebuilt, a political system left crippled by years of dictatorial rule is being set right, and a friendly hand is being extended to India.

Since coming to office, Zardari has made significant changes - most notably, ending the practice of using militant groups as clients for the military and ISI and making significant investments in eliminating religious extremism. While a net positive, these changes have sparked conspiracy theories in the Pakistani media with political opponents and opportunists fanning the anti-Zardari flames. For the president to steadfastly continue his push for democratization and anti-militantism has involved quite a bit of personal and political risk.

That risk is paying off, though, and continued support from democratic countries promise to help propel Pakistan from a country on the brink of being the first nuclear "failed state" to being the first truly democratic Islamic republic and an example for other Islamic countries yearning for prosperity and freedom.

Writing in today's Huffington Post, Pakistan National Assembly member and PPP spokesperson Farahnaz Ispahani explains Zardari's drive for a better Pakistan:

Rumor mills have worked overtime over the last one year to weave conspiracy theories, set deadlines for governmental breakdown and predict a return to the era of palace intrigue and soft coups.

President Zardari has, however, remained steadfast in strengthening democracy and has been fully supported by Prime Minister Gilani and the professional civil and military officials. Last year's major achievements include gathering public support for the fight against militants in the Swat Valley, securing an IMF bailout for the battered economy, restoration of the independent judiciary, working out of compromises between various political parties, and the outlining of a vision for transforming the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Despite these improvements, Pakistan also struggles against the changing political sentiment in the West after several long years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today's Wall Street Journal featured the following ad emphasizing the importance of the partnership between Pakistan and the US in the fight against terrorism. Indeed, a working partnership between the two nations will be essential to any progress in the region.

In addition to making a legitimate and expanded effort to end the scourge of religious militantism in Pakistan, Zardari has made significant improvements in the direction of Pakistan's economy - a vital piece of the struggle for democracy.

The democratic government inherited a hemorrhaging economy buffeted by global financial turmoil, exogenous commodities price shock and adverse security environment.

This combined with erroneous policy choices and policy inaction by the previous governments during political transition led to macroeconomic imbalances, slower growth, higher inflation, sharp deterioration of external position, decline in capital inflows, historic fiscal deficit and huge drop in gross international reserves from a high of over $16 billion in April 2007 to a low of $3.4 billion (equal to less than 1 month imports) by end October 2008.

Prudent policies implemented after President Zardari's election are yielding results. By end-June 2009, fiscal deficit had declined from a high of 7.4% to 4.3% of GDP, current account balance has declined from 8.4% to 5.3% of GDP and inflation had decelerated from a high of 25.3% in August 2008 to 13.1% by end-June 2009 year-on-year basis. Home remittances from Overseas Pakistanis reached a historic high of $7.811 billion and the trade deficit declined by 16.5% compared to last year. Foreign Direct Investment started to pick up again and stands at $3.721 billion despite adverse domestic and global environment. Gross foreign exchange reserves have moved back to three months imports (over $ 12 billion).

Zardari's successes have not gone unnoticed in Pakistan. Despite the often-vicious political theatre that has kept a stranglehold on the nation for so long, opinion leaders are taking note of the progress under Zardari, as well as his willingness to learn from mistakes of the past and take new paths towards the future.

Mr Zardari's biggest feat was "normalisation" with the MQM despite the old hostile reflexes of the PPP in Sindh. But by assuaging the hurt pride of the ANP from the past encounters with the PPP, he has stabilised Sindh in general and Karachi in particular at a time when the dice was loaded in favour of the Taliban and their terror enterprise. When it came to the Taliban trouble in Swat, he cleverly let the parliament decide on military action there.

...

Mr Zardari is realistic in his India policy and wants to walk the remaining few miles towards normalisation quickly rather than slowly, despite the hurdle of the Mumbai attacks. He is handsomely backed on his India policy by the PMLN leader Mr Nawaz Sharif, which means that Pakistan is well set to join the global consensus about peace in South Asia. On this subject, the media-led assault against him is bound to bite the dust.

President Zardari's "flexibility" has placed the PPP in a position of advantage vis-à-vis the Pakistan Army. His party has successfully negotiated the difficult "talk to Taliban" phase to arrive at the "national consensus against the Taliban", popularising the Pakistan Army once again after 1965, and surprising the outside world that had despaired of Pakistan ever learning that "talking" to the Taliban was of no use.

Assessing the political landscape and learning from early mistakes, President Zardari keeps a moderate profile and is trying to curb his old habit of solving all problems on his own. If the big changes have to happen in the five-year tenure of the PPP, President Zardari is as fair a bet for Pakistan as anyone else; and it is good that he leads the party too.

It is impressive for the President of Pakistan to turn the nation around on the issue of religious militantism. For the same president to also tackle economic liberalization, political democratization, and normalization of relations with India is nothing short of extraordinary.

As Talibani terrorists continue their assault on Pakistan and the world economy remains mired in uncertainty, Zardari will undoubtedly be faced with new and more difficult decisions in his second year as President. But after decades of rule by illiberal dictators and corrupt plutocrats, Zardari has demonstrated with actions, not words, that his goals are increased democratization and economic prosperity for Pakistan. Judged by the first year in office, Zardari may well be the best hope for a new Pakistan. He may actually be key.

Tags: economics, India, pakistan, PPP, Taliban, zardari (all tags)

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