The truth is out there -- but it doesn't really matter what it is. This seems to be the mantra for politics in Pakistan these days, and none of us are immune from it. The Pakistani press was quick to judge President Asif Ali Zardari's last-minute trip to Dubai for medical treatment as a form of political exile in disguise at the behest of the military. His departure instantly confirmed the prevailing view that Zardari is increasingly on the ropes with the military and that the "Memogate" scandal -- in which Zardari allegedly drafted a cable to the U.S. government offering to reshape Pakistan's military leadership -- was indeed the straw that broke the camel's back for the military. This is Pakistan after all, a place where the military is always in charge. Is it any wonder none of us really waited to learn the full details of Zardari's trip to Dubai before speculating on the political possibilities of a post-Zardari Pakistan?
Rumors of Zardari's political demise have been greatly exaggerated a number of times over the course of his eventful three-year presidency. While it's certainly too early to count him out now, his already weak political position now seems even further compromised, and it's not too soon to look at the scenarios for how this weak, but surprisingly resilient, leader could leave the stage and who might replace him.
Given Pakistan's historic penchant for dramatic changes in power -- with three successful coups and numerous unsuccessful attempts since 1949 -- the military shenanigans scenario remains firmly within the realm of possibility. Let us not forget former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's attempt to sack Army Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf by not allowing his plane to land in 1999. In response, Musharraf initiated a coup against Sharif's government, placed him under house arrest, and formally indicted him on charges of hijacking, kidnapping, attempted murder, and treason. Musharraf then assumed power as chief executive, became president and remained in power for the next nine years.
Don't hold your breath for this "counter-coup" scenario to unfold this time around. While Army chief of staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani does face criticism from senior military leadership and lower ranks for allowing a corrupt and inefficient civilian leadership to remain in place, he is less activist-minded than other military chiefs. His primary goal remains to keep the military visibly out of politics and improve the domestic image of the military. Ousting Zardari for his alleged involvement in "Memogate" would circumvent the judicial investigation underway, unleash public criticism of military interference, and confirm what the world has already concluded: that the military runs the show in Pakistan and is paving the path for an eventual return to dictatorship. While the counter-coup scenario is always plausible for Pakistan, it is less likely with the current cast of characters.
As weak as Zardari appears now, it's also important to realize that no one in Pakistan ever thought he would last this long. Before coming to power, he was known as "Mr. 10 Percent," having served two prison sentences for seeking financial kickbacks from government contracts, corruption and misuse of public funds during the tenure of his wife, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Other allegations against him range from conspiracy to murder, kidnapping, extortion, money laundering, and questions about the validity of his educational background. This is hardly the profile of a president who would prove adroit beyond expectations at keeping together a coalition government known for its opportunists, concession-seekers, and obstructionists.