Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari has travelled to Dubai for medical treatment, according to top government officials who rubbished reports in the Pakistani media he is about to resign.
Spokesperson Farahnaz Ispahani, who travelled with the president by helicopter yesterday evening, told the Monitor that rumors of Mr. Zardari’s impending resignation were “absolute nonsense,” adding he had gone for a “routine procedure.” Sherry Rehman, ambassador-designate to the United States, who saw the president off in Islamabad on Tuesday evening, says “he needs a check-up and some rest.”
Still, Zardari’s sudden departure has sparked frenzied speculation inside Pakistan about the possibility of a “silent coup.” The theory holds that the unpopular president – who was due to address parliament about a controversial memo allegedly sent by one of his close aides that sought US help in reining in Pakistan’s powerful Army – would step aside citing “ill health,” paving the way for new leadership more acceptable to the military.
According to Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan’s Herald magazine, the rumors have quickly gained credibility among the public because of the perception that this government is on its last legs.
“Look at what has happened in the last two months. The memo scandal, last month’s NATO border attack, corruption cases against the government in the Supreme Court, the opposition rallies in the streets, and reports of pressure within the ruling party. All these create an atmosphere of uncertainty,” he says.
“I don’t know who is behind the rumors. But they definitely weaken the government further. It creates an image of instability in the country and gives the impression that anything can happen at any time,” he adds.
President Zardari was voted in to power in 2008 following Pakistan’s return to democracy after almost nine years of military-led rule. His late wife, Benazir Bhutto, had led the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) until her assassination in 2007.
Since then, he has ruled in an uneasy relationship with Pakistan’s military brass, who retain defacto control over national security and foreign policy issues, yet allow the civilian government to provide a democratic “veneer” to the outside world.
While the Army’s popularity remains steady, Zardari’s has plummeted owing partly to a series of corruption related scandals. And if the Army generals believe he was actively working against their interests, their patience may run out, says Mr. Alam.
“As long as the military thinks the PPP are of use, the relationship works. The moment they realize they are becoming a part of the problem they will just ditch them,” he says.
A large part of the fears of a coup are derived from a story published in Foreign Policy’s "The Cable" blog yesterday, which cited a former US official as saying there is a growing expectation within the US government that Zardari is on the way out.
He also described Zardari as “incoherent” in a phone call between US President Obama and Zardari that he claimed to have access to over the weekend. Analysts within Pakistan question whether a former official would be privy to a conversation held between the US president and another head of state.
Alam expects Zardari will not address his resignation rumors directly, but will continue to have aides dismiss the claims. “If he’s astute he won’t say a word and his aides will continue doing the job. Maybe you’ll see an image of him meeting an official, being presidential.”
While Zardari is away in Dubai, his 23-year-old son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the PPP’s co-chairman, who is being groomed for future leadership, and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani remain in Islamabad.