ISLAMABAD: In an intriguing political development, PPP leader and former president Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan, is being tipped as the likely replacement of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. Highly informed sources close to President Asif Ali Zardari told The News that barring certain procedural hiccups, the decision to bring in Aitzaz may be as good as final.
Whatever else may be said about President Zardari, one thing is for certain: the co-chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party has a special knack for surprising his friends and foes alike. This Tuesday, addressing crowds at Garhi Khuda Bux on the fourth death anniversary of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, President Zardari left political observers perplexed once more with his garrulous eulogising of Aitzaz Ahsan.
The president thanked Aitzaz for coming to Naudero and, in an unprecedented move, announced that Aitzaz’s speech was next, after the president’s. Indeed, Aitzaz Ahsan appeared to be the keynote speaker at the event.
According to a source extremely close to the president, it seems that serious discussions are underway about replacing Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani with Aitzaz. “It is a fact that this option is being considered,” the source told The News. “Gilani may go. It’s a serious option. We can say with certitude that Aitzaz as prime minister is becoming a bigger and bigger possibility everyday.”
Aitzaz has been sidelined by the PPP in recent years because of his leading role in the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of deposed judges. His membership of the central executive committee of the party was also suspended early in 2009 and he has since been excluded from important party activities. Aitzaz has, however, insisted he would not quit the party that he had invested decades of his political career in and made sacrifices for. These investments and sacrifices may just have paid off now as well placed sources reveal that PM Gilani may be asked to resign, with Aitzaz coming in to take his place.
According to a highly placed source, Monday night, before the public gathering in Naudero, Aitzaz received fawning calls from Qamar Zaman Kaira, Fauzia Wahab, Sherry Rheman, Raja Pervaiz and other PPP leaders. “Aitzaz was a little taken aback by this,” the source said. “Zardari has been making hour-long calls to Aitzaz almost every day now, even prior to Dec 6 [when the president left for Dubai for medical treatment]. The president has been telling Aitzaz he wants to reward him and be friends again like they used to be.”
The News spoke to Aitzaz briefly while he was boarding a plane back home from Naudero and asked him if he were being considered for the PM’s slot, which he categorically denied. “You have to be an MNA to be prime minister,” Aitzaz told this correspondent. When asked if, hypothetically speaking, he were seriously considered for the slot, would it be a possibility under the constitution, Aitzaz said: “Sure, you can do it through a bye-election, but why would you for such a short term?”
A constitutional lawyer confirmed: “If the PPP wants to go the PM route with Aitzaz, it can get him elected through a bye-election in 30 days. It’s very much possible.”
Ever since the memo controversy first erupted on the political scene, observers and sources in the know of things have suggested the names of several PPP leaders that the army chief has personally asked Zardari to act against. The names of interior minister Rehman Malik and minister for petroleum and natural resources Dr Asim Hussain have come up again and again but sources now suggest PM Gilani is at the top of the list of those whose backs the army wants to see.
The tension is also clear from Gilani’s unusual outburst before the National Assembly last week when he warned of conspiracies against the civilian government, accusing army generals of acting as a ‘state within a state’ and reminding them that they were accountable to Parliament. “Gilani has turned the tone to defiant mode and has been busy raising alarm,” said a commentator. “That is not the language or the way of Zardari.”
Most importantly, say observers, replacing Gilani may have become inevitable from the point of view of a president who is interested only in his and his government’s survival. “It’s clear the army doesn’t want to intervene directly and has thus thrown the PPP to the courts,” explained an insider. “But if Aitzaz enters the picture, the Supreme Court will have little incentive to knock out the government. In this way, Zardari would neutralise his two biggest threats: the army and the courts. It’s a pitch-perfect move and almost assures that elections will be held as planned in 2013.”
Observers also suggest that this move would make sense as the PPP begins to lay down the planks of its electoral campaigns. “Aitzaz is a great strategist and he’s won the hearts and minds of the people as the leader of the lawyers’ movement,” said an insider. “For a party so inextricably associated with corruption, who better than the clean Aitzaz to lead the election campaign? It’s an intriguing move that could pay off.”
A frazzled PM Gilani may have also given the game away at the hurriedly-called press conference on Monday when he said whether or not he stayed prime minister, the government, and parliament, would complete their term. “The Gilani presser yesterday and Zardari’s unprecedented praise in Naudero; sounds like they’re setting the scene for something. Gilani has said himself: whether he is PM or not, the PPP will complete five years. And so the best person for the remaining time is none other than Aitzaz.”
Sources say Aitzaz was offered the governorship of Punjab this year after the assassination of Salman Taseer and after Sardar Latif Khosa had already been appointed. He was also offered the chairmanship of the Pakistan cricket board later. A source very close to the president said Zardari didn’t appoint Aitzaz as Punjab governor in January because his psychic told him he would double-cross him.
But today, from the point of view of Zardari the grandmaster at political chess, Gilani’s removal and Aitzaz’s entry seem like just the kind of gamble the president is known for taking. As one insider confirmed: “It’s safe to say that PPP’s 2013 re-election campaign will be led by Aitzaz Ahsan and Aseefa Bhutto Zardari.”