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Wednesday Jan 15 2020

Are Zardari and Bilawal on one page?

Bilawal (left) with father Asif Ali Zardari (right)

It is no secret. Former president Asif Ali Zardari still holds the keys to decision-making in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and its offshoot, The Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP). That was all the more clear when his son, and the chairman of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari faced opposition from his own father after proposing amendments to the services chiefs’ bills.

The changes had the backing of the PPP’s central executive committee. Still, they were quickly yanked on the day the parliament voted.

Those privy to the developments tell me that at the very last minute, just as the national assembly session called for a vote on the three bills, Zardari used his undeclared veto power to have the amendments shelved. It is unclear though, if Bilawal knew of the sudden decision or was he asked by the former president to not insist on altering the law.

Naveed Qamar, PPP’s senior leader and lawmaker, clarified, in response to a tweet I posted, that he received a call from Zardari, the co-chairman of PPP, to withdraw the amendments. He further added that Bilawal was not happy and registered his protest by staying away from the parliament on the day of the vote.

“We held a short meeting on the morning of the parliament’s session, at the Bilawal House in Islamabad,” Qamar told me, “Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was also present. It is true that he was not in favour of withdrawing the amendments and wanted them incorporated in the legislation.” But the final decision was taken by his father, who was in contact with Qamar via phone.

Others in the party said, on the condition of anonymity, that after the vote count, Bilawal went on an unscheduled visit to Dubai. He was against the party’s sudden change of heart and stance, especially since he himself called the meeting of the central executive committee, the highest body in the PPP, to examine the new bills.

This, though, is not the first time the chairman of the PPP has been vetoed by the co-chairman of the PPP. In recent years, whenever Bilawal tried to take an aggressive posture in a bid to revive the party, his father insisted he go slow instead.

The recent episode will hurt Bilawal’s image more than that of his father’s. The young Zardari’s principal stance against the ruling party, and Prime Minister Imran Khan, is being seen to have taken a U-turn, something he often accused the prime minister of.

Those present that day at the morning meet tell me that Naveed Qamar surprised several PPP leaders when he announced that he was retracting the proposed amendments, on the request of the defense minister Pervez Khan Khattak.

Once reason for PPP reneging on its earlier stand could be that Zardari and his sister, Faryal Talpur, are facing serious corruption and money laundering charges. Both are, at the moment, out on bail. Separately, Bilawal has also been included in probes by the anti-graft body and the election commission of Pakistan.

While Bilawal has chosen silence on the matter, others in his party are speaking out.

This weekend, at a festival in Lahore, Farhatullah Babar, an veteran PPP leader, made his differences with the party public. He told the gathered audience that the decision to withdraw the amendments was taken unilaterally by the party leadership, and went against the consensus of the central executive committee.

Besides Babar, Raza Rabbani, Qamar Zaman Kaira and Sherry Rehman are also rumored to be upset with the party’s last minute change of stance.

Whatever the reasons maybe, the party’s image has been damaged.

In 2013, when Bilawal made his political debut at Jinnah ground in Karachi, he challenged both the MQM founder, Altaf Hussain, and PML-N Nawaz Sharif. On that day, he also announced that a party convention will be held in Lahore on the eve of PPP's Foundation Day i.e. Nov. 30.

Post the speech, Hussain and Sharif expressed their displeasure with Zardari at the words directed at them. The former president in those days was looking to reconcile with both men.

On November 30, when a large number of PPP workers and supporters arrived at the convention in Punjab, they were told that Bilawal will not be attending. Instead, his father presided over the session. Workers then asked Zardari why the PPP chairman was missing. He replied: “Bilawal abhi bacha hai”. (Bilawal is still a child).

Zardari, over the years, has developed the reputation of being a master political chess player. His government not only completed its terms, but for the first time a political party had its own prime minister, president, speaker national assembly and senate chairman.

Yet, when he took head-on the former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and backed out of his written accord with Nawaz Sharif to restore deposed judges, he committed the first of many blunders which shook his government. In order to stop the long march announced by Nawaz Sharif against the PPP government, the president Zardari asked the army chief to play the role of a guarantor.

Some PPP stalwarts in private conversations admit that poor governance at the Center and the chequered image of Zardari led to the party being wiped out from Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.

In 2015, Zardari and Bilawal called a joint meeting of the PPP and the PPPP in Dubai to chart a way forward in Punjab. Sources tell me that the meeting continued for three days. During the consultation, senior leaders Aitzaz Ahsan, Qamar Zaman Kaira and Nadeem Afzal Chan advised Zardari to step down as party co-chairman and let Bilawal run the party. Zardari did not make any commitment then. But later, he kept the position of co-chairman and appointed himself president of the PPPP.

There is no doubt that Zardari’s health has deteriorated in recent months. And yet, his firm grip on the party remains. He continues to use his veto power, when needed, even at the cost of displeasing his son.

Abbas is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang

He tweets @MazharAbbas.GEO