Pakistan's former president Asif Ali Zardari has returned to the country, ending his 18-month-long self-imposed exile, amidst speculations about his future role in the Pakistan Peoples Party, which has threatened a major protest against the Nawaz Sharif government.
The party has asked the government to change the interior minister and appoint a full-time foreign minister, among other demands, before December 27 or face street demonstrations.
So far, none of the demands have been fulfilled.
Zardari landed at Karachi's Jinnah International Airport on Friday afternoon and later addressed a huge rally criticising Prime Minister Sharif.
But local media was not sure about the role of Zardari who with his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is the co-chairman of the PPP which is the largest opposition party and also rules southern province of Sindh.
"Will Zardari take back the reins of PPP? Will he change the party's strategy in dealing with the ruling PML-N? Will his son take the back seat? These are the questions making the rounds in political circles as Zardari returned to Karachi," the Express Tribune reported.
The answer to all these questions is 'no'.
This is at least what the Express Tribune has learnt from top PPP officials in background interviews.
They say Bilawal will remain the face of the party, while Zardari will act as a 'patriarch'.
Zardari, known for his wheeling and dealing, will use his political acumen to win over other political groups with his quintessential policy of political reconciliation.
The objective will be to improve the party's numerical strength in the legislatures of smaller provinces in the next general elections.
Bilawal, meanwhile, would continue to take on political rivals aggressively, mainly in Punjab, the province which decides who will rule in the Centre as almost half of the members of the National Assembly are elected from Islamabad.
Public perception of Zardari is not good. And the PPP, which is evolving under Bilawal, knows it full well. This was the reason PPP's inner circles had weighed the pros and cons of Zardari's homecoming, it said.
Some political analysts, however, see Zardari's return in the backdrop of the change in the military's high-command.
Before leaving the country in June last year, Zardari had made a hard-hitting speech at a function in Islamabad.
Apparently, his target was the powerful military establishment, especially the then army chief, General Raheel Sharif.
It was reported that Zardari was angered by the Rangers' actions against PPP leaders as part of the operation in Karachi.
Zardari was quick to call up the new army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, to felicitate him soon after he had received the baton of command from Gen Raheel last month.
Insiders say the PPP is in the process of defining Zardari's new role as the 'patriarch' of the party to benefit from his political acumen while he stays behind the scenes.
"He would be particularly helpful in consolidating PPP's position in the smaller provinces. The party wants to utilise his experience in traditional politics," says a senior PPP leader.
Zardari would leave Punjab to an increasingly aggressive Bilawal. He has already delegated the party's organisational matters to his son, he said.
Bilawal has given the ruling party until December 27 to accept his four demands or else face the wrath of PPP.
The PPP feels Zardari's style of politics will be of much help in the smaller provinces, especially in Sindh and Balochistan, where political scene is still dominated by fuedal lords.
"We plan to add six to seven more seats to our strength in the National Assembly from Sindh and a few from Balochistan in the next general elections. Here, we would need a leader who has expertise in traditional politics of give and take. No one can rival Zardari's skills in such matters," said a close aide of Bilawal.
Bilawal, the scion of the Bhutto dynasty, would copy the aggressive style of politics introduced in the party by his maternal grandfather and PPP founder Zulifikar Ali Bhutto and later successfully adopted by the late Benazir Bhutto.
Thus Bilawal would make a serious attempt to reclaim the ground the PPP has ceded to other parties in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
PPP insiders say some 'surprises' are expected on December 27 in Garhi Khuda Bukhash when the party observes Benazir's death anniversary.
"Subsequently, some prominent political figures from Punjab, mainly from South Punjab, would also jump ship to join the PPP before the party kick-starts its protest campaign in the province," claimed another close aide of Bilawal.
Meanwhile, ruling Pakistan Muslims League-Nawaz has welcomed the return of Zardari.
Railway Minister Khawja Saad Rafique said that Zardari's presence will have sobering effect on the politics of his son Bilawal.
Image: Asif Ali Zardari, (Centre in traditional cap), former president of Pakistan and co-chairman of Pakistan People's Party political party, gestures to his supporters after returning from Dubai, at the airport's old Jinnah terminal in Karachi, Pakistan. Photograph: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters