Zardari fights the battles he can win

The Pakistani president's latest row with country's top judge appears to have been calculated to leave him in a stronger position.

ISLAMABAD // Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, has confounded his critics by initiating and surviving a series of confrontations over the past year with his detractors in the judiciary, media, military and political opposition.

The latest was a confrontation last week with Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the popular chief justice of the Supreme Court, over who had the constitutional authority to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and the chief justices of the provincial high courts. The four-day confrontation ended on Wednesday after some nifty political footwork by Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister and a member of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) that Mr Zardari leads, with both sides winning concessions.

The judicial appointments made by Mr Zardari on February 14 that sparked the confrontation were rescinded and replaced by the nominees of the chief justice, who on Friday uncharacteristically crowed that unity within the judiciary had averted a national political crisis. However, a joint statement issued after a decisive meeting between Mr Chaudhry and Mr Gilani made no mention of an agreement on the constitutional authority to appoint senior judges.

The circumstances underlying the confrontation suggest that Mr Zardari initiated it knowing precisely what he was getting into, and emerged having achieved what he had set out to achieve: a public declaration from the country's top judge that his job was limited to safeguarding Pakistan's constitutional democracy and its institutions. In effect, Mr Chaudhry signalled that the judiciary would not allow itself to become a vehicle for the overthrow of the president or the government.

The presidency of Mr Zardari had appeared fragile since last July after the Supreme Court ruled the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), a law that had granted him and hundreds of other politicians immunity from prosecution on long-standing corruption charges, was in violation of Pakistan's constitution. The NRO was a central component of a political deal struck in November 2007 between Pervez Musharraf, the then president, and Benazir Bhutto, a two-time former prime minister and the wife of Mr Zardari.

Ms Bhutto was allowed to return from exile and contest forthcoming elections, but was assassinated in Rawalpindi the following month, leaving Mr Zardari with the task of leading the PPP until their three children were old enough to take charge of the party established in the 1960s by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, their grandfather. The PPP was swept into power in the February 2008 general election and Mr Zardari succeeded Mr Musharraf after he resigned as president in August.

However, his reluctance to reinstate Mr Chaudhry, who had been sacked as chief justice by Mr Musharraf in November 2007, led to the break-up in May 2008 of a dream coalition with Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Muslim League, Pakistan's second biggest political party. Mr Sharif ultimately launched a massive political rally from Lahore, his stronghold, to Islamabad, the federal capital, to force the issue, prompting the intervention of Gen Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, the powerful army chief, and forcing Mr Zardari to relent.

Since then, the president has been under incessant pressure from detractors in the media, notably the Geo-Jang Group, the country's largest, which after the July 2009 striking down of the NRO has given considerable column space and airtime to the examining the legal options to bypass the immunity from prosecution the constitution grants the president while he is in office. Mr Zardari's situation was further compounded when became embroiled in a public tiff with Pakistan's powerful army generals over the terms set by the US Congress for a substantial financial assistance package.

By December, Mr Zardari was under such pressure that Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's point man for Pakistan and Afghanistan, publicly acknowledged the fact and offered to mediate if so requested "by our partners". However, the Pakistani president has since December gone on a political offensive that has shifted the debate from being about his personal credentials to one about the domination of political sentiment in Punjab, the country's largest province, which is home to the political opposition and the army leadership.

Emerging from two years of near isolation in the presidency, he went on a nationwide tour and secured unanimous, if constitutionally inconsequential, votes of confidence from the provincial assemblies of Pakistan's three other provinces, where the PPP either leads or is a major partner in coalition governments. Similarly, the confrontation with the judiciary on the appointment of judges has also paid dividends. Mr Gilani, often considered a political lightweight, led a spirited counter-offensive in the Pakistani parliament that again changed the debate, this time to one about the sovereignty of parliament over other institutions of state.

That stance, and the chief justice's quoting of constitutional parameters to avoid an outright confrontation with the government, embarrassed Mr Sharif, the opposition leader, who had accused Mr Zardari of being "the biggest threat to democracy". However, Mr Zardari is not quite out of the woods yet. The judiciary is maintaining its pressure on government prosecutors to pursue the to-date unsubstantiated corruption charges against Mr Zardari.

If any are proven and result in a conviction, it could create a fresh crisis for Mr Zardari, who is already facing legal petitions challenging his eligibility to hold the office of president on grounds of common morality.