Asif Ali Zardari

From Prisoner to President in Pakistan

The elevation of Asif Ali Zardari, widower of slain Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto, from prisoner to president in four years must be one of the most dramatic political transformations in recent times. Irfan Husain reports

Asif Ali Zardari with his daughters Bakhtawar Zardari, left, and Asifa Zardari at a celebration dinner in Islamabad, September 2008 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was elected president of Pakistan on 6 September by the country's lawmakers

​​Released in 2004 after serving over eight years in jail on unproven criminal charges, Zardari lived abroad until his wife's tragic assassination on 27 December 2007. Returning to Pakistan, he took over her popular, left-of-centre Pakistan People's Party, and led it to victory in the general elections in February. But while the PPP won the largest number of seats in Parliament, it did not have an outright majority. Through a series of deft manoeuvres, Zardari stitched together a number of deals that allowed him to set up a coalition government that included a broad spectrum of political groupings across the country.

While even his many detractors regarded Zardari's non-confrontationist approach with grudging approval, they were aghast when his name was proposed for the indirect election to the presidency. This vacancy arose when Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign last month under the threat of impeachment. Earlier, Zardari had seemed willing to tolerate the ex-dictator in the presidency as a sop to the Americans who were alarmed at the power vacuum developing in the troubled front-line state in its war against the Taliban.

However, in an attempt to appease Nawaz Sharif, leader of his faction of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the second biggest coalition partner in Parliament, he went along with the demand to impeach Musharraf.

"Mr Ten Percent"

Over the years, Zardari's name has become a synonym for political corruption. Nicknamed Mr Ten Percent for his reputation for skimming off commissions on government deals during his wife's two terms as prime minister in the Nineties, it is widely suspected that he will use his elevation to make even more money. However, the fact is that over 11 years, no court has convicted him of any crime.

In 2007, prosecution in all cases in Pakistan and abroad was halted due to the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) promulgated by Musharraf. Part of a complex deal negotiated secretly with Ms Bhutto at Washington's instigation, this law granted amnesty to politicians and bureaucrats accused of crimes between 1990 and 1999. Although this controversial law let hundreds of people off the hook, it was widely viewed as Bhutto-specific.

Under this deal, Benazir Bhutto could return to Pakistan from exile, and fight the elections due in January. From the American perspective, the liberal PPP would give Musharraf political cover as he led the fight against Islamic extremism.

However, Ms Bhutto's murder changed the scenario, and Zardari's recent election has raised more questions than it has answered. Thus far, he has moved cautiously, fearing to ruffle the feathers of an army that remains Pakistan's most powerful institution, and one that has intervened in the political process time and again. Indeed, it has ruled directly for more than half of Pakistan's existence as an independent country.

The powers of the president

Asif Ali Zardari, left, and Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad, in August 2008 (photo: AP)
The coalition of PPP leader Asif Zardari, left, and the chief of the
Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz Sharif, collapsed because Zadari did not
abide by their agreement to get sacked judges reinstated

​​Critics point towards the fact that Zardari is now the most powerful civilian president the country has ever known. Under the original constitution, the post of the president is largely symbolic. However, after Musharraf staged his coup, he pushed through the notorious 17th Amendment that gave him sweeping powers.

When she was alive, Ms Bhutto had signed an agreement with Nawaz Sharif aimed at striking down this amendment. Now, people wonder if Zardari will remain true to his wife's pledge, even though he repeatedly stated that when elected, he would give up these powers to appoint and fire military chiefs, and dismiss Parliament.

Political football

It is possible that he will use this law as a bargaining chip to make Sharif withdraw the demand to reinstate Iftikahr Chaudhry, the chief justice of the Supreme Court sacked by Musharraf last year. This move triggered massive protests by the legal community and much of civil society. Since the elections, Sharif has become increasingly popular by sticking to the demand that the chief justice be reinstated.

Despite lengthy negotiations and a signed agreement, Zardari has not actually lent his support to Iftikhar Chaudhry's return to the supreme court. One reason could be that the independent-minded judge is known to disapprove of the NRO, and would probably re-open the cases against Zardari. He is also perceived as being pro-Nawaz Sharif, and has thus become a political football between the two rivals for power.

The threat of Islamic militancy

Pakistani rescue and security officials examine the site of a bomb explosion at the office of the Federal Investigation Agency in Lahore, Pakistan on 11 March 2008 (photo: AP)
Heavy responsibilities lie ahead of Zadari: Pakistan's disastrous
security situation will be a key challenge. Since the beginning of the
"war against terror" the Pakistani population has been facing a wave of
suicide bombings across the country

​​However, now that Zardari has become president, he faces a large number of challenges. First and foremost is the threat of Islamic militancy from the tribal areas. Last year, nearly 50 suicide attacks killed nearly a thousand Pakistanis across the country. The militants are threatening to continue their campaign unless the army withdraws from the border belt. However, attempts to negotiate separate peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban have not succeeded in the past as they have used the time and space to launch attacks in Afghanistan.

NATO and Western forces have viewed such attempts with strong disapproval. The recent American attack on Pakistani soil has caused a wave of anger.

The economy is in shambles, with inflation running at close to 30%, the rupee tumbling, and the stock market in meltdown. A collapse could well induce the army to intervene yet again. So whatever Zardari's many critics might say, his recent election is no bed of roses.

Irfan Husain

© 2008

Irfan Husain writes two weekly columns for Dawn, Pakistan's biggest and most influential English daily. After working in the Pakistani civil service for 30 years, he was president of a private university in Karachi for five years. He now divides his time between England and Pakistan. He has contributed to publications around the world during his freelance career spanning three decades.

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