Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari abruptly returned to Karachi on the morning of Dec. 19, following a 13-day absence for medical treatment in Dubai, where he lived while in exile. The government did not issue a formal statement about Zadari’s health, but his supporters disclosed that he had suffered a mild stroke, which left him unconscious for several minutes.

Zardari’s sudden return fueled speculation about his future, but, more importantly, about the future of civilian rule in Pakistan. His decision followed a three-hour meeting between Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the Pakistani army’s chief of the army. His choice of destination — Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and his political base, rather than Islamabad, the county’s capital — suggests the depth of the crisis now bubbling below the surface.

Zardari has held power since 2008, having been elected eight months after the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto. Even after a constitutional amendment in 2010 made the prime minister the country’s chief executive, Zardari has continued to be the main decision-maker. His political rise is thus in keeping with South Asia’s tradition of quasi-democratic dynastic politics: he assumed leadership of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — founded in 1967 by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — and appointed his son Bilawal as the party’s co-chairperson, basing his decision on a handwritten will left by his wife. To underscore the link, the son was renamed Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

But, having deftly out-maneuvered his opponents for three years, Zardari seems to have misread the current political environment, for Pakistan is not the same country in which his wife and father-in-law wielded power. By trying to play by the old rules, he committed several mistakes that may ultimately cost him his job and the Bhutto family its hold on power.

As many other Pakistani leaders have done before him, Zardari has relied on American support to stay where he is. This worked for some time, but an alleged attempt to involve the United States more openly in Pakistani politics weakened, rather than strengthened, his hold on power.

Indeed, while the Arab Spring ended the old corrupt bargain that kept so many autocratic rulers in power across the Muslim world, Zardari and his associates appear not to have received the message. It was widely believed that Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., had attempted to enlist America’s help in preventing yet another military coup. An unsigned memorandum, believed to have been written at Haqqani’s suggestion, was sent to Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, seeking American help in exchange for fighting extremists in Pakistan’s tribal areas who were complicating America’s efforts to extract itself from Afghanistan.

What the lively Pakistani media dubbed “memogate” forced Haqqani to resign and enabled the Supreme Court to assert its authority by deciding to investigate the matter. The court was already casting an eye at Zadari by examining the deal between former President Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. In exchange for the withdrawal of corruption cases against her, Zardari, and several of their friends and associates, Bhutto agreed to support Musharraf after the elections scheduled for December 2007. The Bush administration, eager to have a democratically elected government in Pakistan to continue the fight against terrorism, was believed to have brokered the agreement.

That arrangement has now been struck down by the Supreme Court, which ordered the government to reopen corruption cases, including one in Switzerland, where Zardari is alleged to have parked tens of millions of dollars. The government balked, and now the court is working to ensure that the executive branch carries out its orders.

But Zardari’s decision to begin grooming his 23-year old son for power may have been his gravest mistake. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto anointed his wife and daughter to be the PPP’s co-chairpersons in case he was executed by the military regime that had overthrown him. Benazir Bhutto, in turn, placed control of the party in the hands of her husband and son.

But this time an awakened citizenry was not inclined to readily accept that political leadership could be passed on so easily from father to daughter, from wife to husband, from father to son.

Political change in Pakistan is assured, but it will come about in a way that cannot be foreseen. The Arab Spring, America’s declining influence in the Muslim world, and citizens’ determination to be heard have combined to create an environment in which the unprecedented and the unpredictable are the only certainties.

Shahid Javed Burki, former finance minister of Pakistan and vice president of the World Bank, is currently chairman of the Institute of Public Policy, Lahore. © 2011 Project Syndicate

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