Zardari in the Crosshairs

Pakistan's leader is losing grip on his presidency and the opposition parties are waiting in the wings. As his popularity plummets, his political fate -- as well as that of the Pakistan Peoples Party and the nation -- hang in the balance. 

Afghanistan's election crisis has temporarily abated, but Pakistan could soon face a volatile political transition of its own. President Asif Ali Zardari is under ever-increasing pressure to resign. His influence and power is dwindling and will likely continue to diminish in the coming months. By this spring, the Zardari presidency could meet its end.

There have been several waves of pressure on Zardari this year, coming primarily from the Army and segments of the private media -- both see Zardari as inept, corrupt, and unpatriotic. And it appears that the Army is entering into a decisive final stage in its power struggle with Zardari, which began with the latter's attempt last year to put the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the military's chief spy service, under civilian control. Until now, Zardari has called his opponents' bluff, and they, lacking the constitutional means to remove him, have faltered in their attempts to oust him. But cracks in Zardari's political coalition are emerging and he is more vulnerable now than ever.

Pakistani politics has historically been marked by extreme bandwagoning around an ascending power broker. Smaller parties ride it to the top, but once the political peak has been reached, they vacate their defensive positions and join the attacking side.

Zardari is fast falling prey to this dynamic. In a recent television interview, for instance, Altaf Hussain, head of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) -- a second-tier political party and member of Zardari's coalition government -- asked the president to resign. Hussain has since backtracked after MQM parlays with Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). But the MQM and other parties successfully prevented the PPP from renewing the 2007 National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), an amnesty bill that benefitted Zardari and other members of the coalition government.

Without this parliamentary protection, Zardari and his allies are now exposed, wounded, and the sharks smell blood in the water. Some would like to leave him limbless -- without meaningful constitutional powers to impact the political process -- but alive enough to make key concessions and serve as a figurehead. Others are aiming for the jugular.

The Pakistani Army, by all indications, would like to see Zardari go, having tried to push him closer to the exit door in March and August of this year. Zardari's accidental presidency, which was produced by his wife's assassination and political deal making to secure an indirect election, was never quite accepted by the Army, which sees him as overly dovish, if not "traitorous," on security issues, like India, and is on edge about the president's attempts to impose civilian oversight over the military.

The scheduled retirement of Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani in November 2010 is likely to add further strain to this relationship. Zardari, as president, has the power to appoint the head of the Army and other military services. His dysfunctional relationship with the Army could create a sense of uncertainty within the institution and fear that its corporate autonomy and monopoly over shaping national security policy are under threat. As Pakistan battles a hydra-headed insurgency in its Pashtun belt and the United States seeks an endgame in Afghanistan, healthy civil-military relations in Pakistan are critical.

Most political elements -- including Zardari's own prime minister and his party's vice chairman, Yousuf Raza Gilani -- would settle for him to be constitutionally neutered, ending the president's ability to dissolve parliament and appoint military service chiefs. Gilani seeks an empowered premiership. And toward this end (some Pakistani commentators speculate, with good reason), he has been colluding with the Army and elements of the opposition to weaken Zardari's position.

However Gilani is playing his cards, he has a difficult balancing act to maintain, for he could be discarded if and when Zardari is ousted by the Machiavellian maneuvering of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who covets a third shot at the premiership. Gilani could, at least for the next year, be an asset for Sharif -- serving to neutralize Zardari and constitutionally empower the presently weakened office of prime minister. It would make political sense for Sharif to then push for midterm elections just after the economic and security climate bottoms out and once the prime minister's office is fully empowered. (One can almost hear Sharif's advisors saying, "Let Gilani, Zardari, and the PPP do the dirty work.") To serve as prime minister for the third time, Sharif would need a constitutional amendment passed by a two-thirds majority in parliament to lift a two-term limit on the premiership. Sharif can only get this passed via deal making with other political parties, but the Army can also get in the mix, make some deals of its own, and shut out Sharif.

But when it comes to Zardari's fight for political survival, it's the second-tier political parties, such as the MQM, that are the true wildcards. Since no party in Pakistan currently holds a parliamentary majority, the smaller parties have a veto power on parliamentary votes (such as for impeachment). Not surprisingly, these parties are using their wild-card status -- coupled with Zardari's vulnerability -- as a bargaining chip in order to influence his actions to their benefit. The MQM, for example, would like governorship of Sindh and to retain administrative control over urban areas of the province. But it and other small parties generally side with the dominant or rising power broker. The recent MQM push against Zardari signals, at least, a political consensus in favor of a weakened Zardari.

If these parties continue to successfully manipulate Zardari he will become a ceremonial president, which would result in nothing short of a political prison. It would deny him tangible power and delay his eligibility for a run for the National Assembly, and thus for the premiership, until two years after his presidential term ends. What's more, internal divisions within the PPP are sure to increase as Zardari's capacity to influence events declines and alternative power centers grow in his place.

Zardari's decline has serious implications for U.S. policy toward Pakistan. His political neutralization would deny the United States a local civilian lever against the Pakistan Army. Restraining the Army's praetorianism, some in Washington argue, will markedly reduce its support for militants in Afghanistan and India, as Pakistan's major political parties (particularly the PPP) are far more inclined toward normalizing ties with neighboring states.

As the challenges in Afghanistan grow and Zardari weakens, Washington becomes increasingly dependent on the Pakistani Army. In fact, U.S. success or failure in Afghanistan will, in part, be decided by the Pakistani Army, which can influence the tempo and trajectory of the war with its control of supply routes from the Arabian Sea into Afghanistan and unparalleled access to Afghan insurgent groups.

Although the United States could try to use Sharif -- a vocal advocate of civilian control over the military -- he has a long history of leveraging anti-American sentiment and has been unwilling to adopt a firm position against the Taliban. Furthermore, if Washington indelicately shifts its patronage from Zardari to Sharif, the Army could intercept the telegraphed pass.

Within the next few years, Zardari's political demise could also impact Pakistan's ideological balance of power. Without meaningful internal reform, the future of the PPP -- Pakistan's largest center-left party -- is at stake. Zardari's unpopularity and inability to legitimately lay claim to the Bhutto name has weakened the PPP in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province. But he, at least, provides some nominal continuity from the Bhutto era as Benazir's widower.

Internal elections and a reinvigorated push for social justice could bring the PPP back to relevancy. But without that change, the PPP could be reduced to a feudal strip in southern Punjab and rural Sindh, and of declining importance in an increasingly urbanized Pakistan. Indeed, for Zardari, the greatest challenge is not to save his presidency, but to save his party.

The PPP is both a family enterprise dominated by the Bhuttos and Zardaris and a national institution that anchors Pakistan's secularists and leftists. If the PPP sank along with Zardari, Pakistan would be without a truly national party -- the remaining major parties are ethnic or regional -- and the odds of ethnic and political fragmentation would increase dramatically. A leaderless left would also embolden the nationalist and Islamic right as Pakistan confronts jihadis at home and debates whether to continue supporting them in the region. And so as Zardari ponders his political future, let us hope that he does not bring down his party, which is critical to his nation's stability, in a bid to save his imperiled presidency.



Vaccine Diplomacy

The multinational effort to eliminate disease might not only save lives but prevent conflict.

Vaccines are arguably one of humankind's greatest creations. Because of vaccines' remarkable ability to halt great plagues and eliminate disease, few other peacetime inventions have had as much influence on human history. Within the last 20 years alone, vaccines have eradicated smallpox, with polio soon to follow. But inoculations that eliminate disease could have an impact well beyond improving global health. Throughout the developing world, vaccines could also be transformed into powerful agents of conflict resolution.

Vaccine diplomacy is nearly as old as vaccines themselves. In 1798, British doctor Edward Jenner published his research on the use of the cowpox (vaccinia) virus to vaccinate (from the Latin word for cow) against the human smallpox virus. By 1800, the Jenner smallpox vaccine was used widely in England and shipped across the channel to France. Within a decade, Napoleon decreed that vaccine departments should be established in all of the major cities of the French empire. And in 1811 Jenner was elected as a foreign member of the Institute of France. Strikingly, Jenner's participation in the use and development of the smallpox vaccine in France occurred during a time of almost continuous war between England and France. But, as Jenner himself observed in a letter to the National Institute of France, "The sciences are never at war."

Similarly, in the early 1950s, polio epidemics raged on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The dreadful nature of these epidemics (they struck young children particularly hard) could have been the deciding factor in compelling the Soviets to break their Cold War silence in 1956 when they realized, in the words of medical historian Saul Benison, "they could no longer afford the comfort and sustenance that ideology provided." Soviet virologists subsequently collaborated with U.S. researcher Albert Sabin to develop a "live" polio vaccine that improved upon the one developed by Jonas Salk in 1954. To this day, many Americans are astonished to learn that the Sabin polio vaccine was introduced into the United States only after its safety and efficacy had first been tested in millions of Soviet children.

The legacy of Cold War vaccine diplomacy is now felt in polio-endemic regions of Africa and Central Asia where, during the last five years, the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Health Organization have negotiated cease-fires in order to conduct successful polio immunization campaigns. Through the efforts of United Nations agencies, mass vaccinations during so-called days of tranquility have been brokered every year in Afghanistan since 1993. In Sudan, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter helped negotiate a six-month cease-fire in 1995 to reduce the incidence of drancunculiasis, a parasitic disease caused by the guinea worm. (The "guinea worm cease-fire" was, at that time, the longest cease-fire in the history of the Sudanese civil conflict.) National immunization days also temporarily halted hostilities in Sierra Leone.

Today, the part of the world most in need of both vaccines and diplomacy is South Asia. Three years ago, the Indian government renewed underground nuclear testing in part because of a perceived threat from China. But India and China share more than a disputed border and expanding nuclear capabilities: These two nations, which together comprise approximately 40 percent of the world's population, also share one of the highest rates of tropical infectious diseases. Illnesses caused by animal parasites living in the human intestine are especially endemic to the region. Diagnostic surveys conducted by the Chinese Ministry of Health between 1988 and 1992 revealed more than 500 million cases of ascariasis (an infection caused by a large intestinal roundworm), 212 million cases of whipworm infection, and 194 million cases of hookworm infection. India is equally plagued by these parasites, which cause devastating problems among both children and adults, especially pregnant women.

The technology exists to make a vaccine to control worms in India and China, but the resources available for this task are pathetically meager. Despite the enormous burdens of disease, both nations still spend much of their scientific budget on the physical and mathematical sciences necessary to develop nuclear arsenals. If these nations diverted even one tenth of their nuclear-weapons budgets to vaccine research, diseases like hookworm might be eradicated in the 21st century. Now is the time to advocate a new peacetime mission for the Chinese and Indian scientific communities -- to shift their intellects and their resources to eradicating the infections that currently trap their rural citizens in a perpetual cycle of poverty. As Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party (and daughter-in-law of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi), remarked, "science should be used for removing poverty and backwardness in the country.”

A multilateral vaccine development program that focuses on tropical infectious diseases highly endemic to South and East Asia might foster a spirit of regional cooperation. Such a program would draw scientists and government health officials from countries engaged in nuclear saber rattling together for a common cause. Moreover, this effort could serve as a model to cope with the next health crisis that will soon ravage the region. Although much of the media coverage of HIV/AIDS has focused on Africa, a newer and possibly more frightening HIV/AIDS epidemic has started to roll through densely populated areas of the Indian subcontinent and China. Through government agencies and private foundations, developed countries can commit critical resources to accelerate the development of new vaccines. Along the way, we might acquire an immunity to war.