|President Zardari addresses |
Parliament amid protest, boycott
Political tensions over the case of a CIA contractor that have dogged U.S.-Pakistani relations for weeks appeared to ease Tuesday as President Asif Ali Zardari gave a speech suggesting he was ready to move on and opposition lawmakers toned down a planned protest. Until shortly before Zardari was due to address a joint session of Parliament, opposition parties had said they intended to disrupt the event and create an embarrassing scene for Zardari, whose government outraged many Pakistanis by freeing Raymond Davis last week in a secretive court deal after he had been charged in the deaths of two Pakistani men.
Instead, in a compromise that analysts hailed as a sign of Pakistan’s maturing democracy, opposition parties that had accused the government of cravenly yielding to U.S. pressure agreed to simply exit the legislative chamber, leaving Zardari free to calmly address supporters in a bland speech that never mentioned the Davis case.
The president’s 20-minute address was mostly a recitation of his government’s domestic accomplishments, combined with vague calls to combat religious extremism and intolerance. His sole reference to international issues was a restatement of Pakistan’s aims for a “long-term relationship” with Washington and a foreign policy based on peace, prosperity, national dignity and sovereignty.
But while some had hoped Zardari would break his silence Tuesday on the Davis case and lay out a vision for U.S.-Pakistani relations, which have frayed badly in recent months despite close cooperation in counterterrorism operations, other analysts said that his opponents’ unexpected willingness to let him have the floor was more significant.
“It was a compromise that strengthened democracy,” one analyst said on GEO television, a private channel that has led the criticism of Zardari’s government for setting Davis free in a deal that paid blood money to his victims’ families under Islamic law.
Observers also saw an element of self-interest in the opposition retreat. It has become clear that many influential groups played a role in orchestrating Davis’s release, including the army, the military-run national intelligence agency, the major religious parties, the courts and the anti-Zardari politicians who control Punjab province.
“We all knew that this had to be resolved in the interests of the nation, but everyone was playing to the gallery, even those involved in the deal,” said Fawzia Wahab, a lawmaker who was dismissed last week as a spokeswoman for Zardari’s party after she advocated a diplomatic solution to the Davis case.
“I only said we had a duty to honor our international commitments, and the next day everyone was calling me a stooge of America,” she said.
Still, Wahab said, the abrupt, opaque agreement to free Davis, who fatally shot two young men who had been following his car in the eastern city of Lahore in late January, has “left a scar on the nation that will not heal fast.” She added: “Everyone felt it, from laborers to housewives.” The wife of one victim killed herself with poison.
The Davis case has left Zardari’s government squeezed between Washington, which wants Pakistan to move more aggressively against Islamist militants at home, and the Pakistani public, which is becoming more anti-American by the day. Zardari was accused of backing Davis’s release to secure a meeting with President Obama and a chance to address Congress when he visits Washington this spring.
On Tuesday, though, the president regained some of his dignity — and the opposition some of its credibility — by carrying out a polite democratic ritual amid the kind of hyper-partisan tensions that once left Zardari’s predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, shaking his fist in frustration as a speech he was giving to Parliament was drowned out by boos and catcalls.