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Zardari begins backroom play
- Pervez camp fuels confusion

Islamabad, Feb. 20: The shadow of backroom intrigue is fast beginning to stain the euphoria of triumph against President Pervez Musharraf. Its key trigger is PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari who has kept potential allies and party colleagues mystified with his moves.

Speculation swirled thick this evening over whether Zardari was preparing to cut a deal with Musharraf and slice Nawaz Sharif, the other major victor of this election, out of the power equation.

Zardari has formally decided not to take premiership, but he clearly wants to be the sole and potent kingmaker. He is dictating the PPP’s decision-making, conducting all negotiations, pronouncing all policy.

At a late-evening media conference, Zardari spoke again of wanting a government of “national consensus” and said he would meet Sharif in this regard tomorrow. But he escaped being pinned to specifics, saying only that he was open to all parties barring the vanquished PML(Q).

Zardari hinted, though, that he could be exploring options minus Sharif, saying: “Our effort will be to include all, including the MQM and even those who boycotted these elections. But it may be that we are not able to convince all.”

In response to a question, he said: “Mian Nawaz Sharif is free to make his own claim on government if he can gather enough people, I will have no problem with that.”

The Musharraf camp cleverly fuelled daylong speculation with inspired media leaks. Official sources in the President’s office revealed that Zardari had met key presidential advisers like Tariq Aziz late last night and been “advised” not to seek a coalition with Sharif and make up numbers with smaller groups like the MQM and ANP instead.

PPP spokesperson Farhatullah Babar denied any such meeting. But, pertinently, President Musharraf’s office didn’t. Such are the tricks that the isolated President’s brains-trust is likely to play as he fights to retain relevance in Pakistan’s power structure.

President Musharraf has rebuffed demands that he quit office in the face of the damning verdict and verily ribbed opponents by saying he is looking forward to working with the future Prime Minister, whoever it is.

The President’s establishment also let it be known it was no lame-duck authority. It loosened restrictions on some interned judges today but asked former Supreme Court Chief Justice Chaudhary Iftikhar and a couple of other judges to vacate their official residences forthwith. They were also prohibited from meeting politicians, media and lawyers.

In another move that took most by surprise and buttressed talk of a Musharraf-Zardari pact, the PPP boss drove to the US embassy this hectic afternoon to discuss the post-election scenario with ambassador Anne Patterson.

The US still considers the President a key ally in its “war on terror” and it is well known it backed a plan that envisaged a Musharraf-Benazir tandem running Pakistan. Analysts believe the Americans may be pushing the same blueprint with Zardari.

“Quite apart from being out of protocol, it is strange for Zardari to have gone to met the American ambassador when he has not even finished talking to his allies over government formation,” a retired army general said. “There is more to it than we are being told.”

Asked what the American view was on a PPP-Nawaz coalition, Zardari side-stepped, saying: “I do not think diplomats take those things into account.”

Many in Zardari’s own party believe supping with President Musharraf would mean betraying the spirit of the mandate and opening the future government to manipulation.

“We should seek to ally with Sharif and build a strong government,” senior PPP leader Aitzaz Ahsan said in Lahore this morning, shortly after restrictions were eased on him. “The message of this mandate is that President Musharraf should go.”

Zardari has never resonated such hardline anti-Musharraf sentiment. On the contrary, he has been circumspect, even soft. He has demanded the release of judges but not committed himself to reinstating the Iftikhar-led bench, or rolling back controversial decisions taken by President under the Provisional Constitution Order following the declaration of Emergency last November.

“There are larger issues to be sorted out on the question of the judiciary’s independence,” Zardari said. “To me it is not a matter of reinstating this judge or that.”

Sharif has made the return of Chaudhary Iftikhar and other dismissed judges non-negotiable and is pressing a line that seeks to whittle the powers of President Musharraf, and, if possible, to impeach him.

Zardari’s position is markedly different --- he says relations with the President are for the parliament to decide. “The mandate is to change governance, it is not to change people,” Zardari pointedly said. “And that is what we want to do, we want to give the country good governance.”

While Sharif is focused on overturning “illegal decisions” taken by Musharraf, Zardari has been emphasising development and poverty-alleviation as his priorities. Analysts believe this may just be his way of justifying a deal with the presidential palace.

“Zardari may be keen on enjoying power, not on confronting Musharraf,” said one analyst.

It is not insignificant that senior PPP leaders like Aitzaz Ahsan stand closer on such key concerns to Sharif than to Zardari; the fact that Ahsan is vociferously advocating Sharif’s position could indicate nascent schisms within the PPP.

Given the opportunity, these are precisely the kind of differences that Musharraf will exploit to divide his adversaries and retain the arbiter’s role.

Stating that Pakistani politicians had a proven record of falling apart, political analyst Mariam Mufti said: “President Musharraf is not going to retreat easily, he is going to push, he is going to play games, he will create divisions with an eye on discrediting elected politicians.”

Ashar Rehman, resident editor of The Dawn newspaper, tended to agree. “In many senses, this is a perfect verdict for a dictator, nobody has a majority, the balance of power in parliament is precarious, he can have a field day, and my sense is President Musharraf will have a go,” he told The Telegraph.

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