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Home > India > News > Columnists > Harsh V Pant

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What a Zardari presidency means

September 09, 2008

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One day he was reviled and despised by millions of Pakistanis. Today he has assumed the pinnacle of power in Pakistan. One doesn't quite know whether to laugh or feel sorry for the state of affairs in our neighbourhood. A person with little experience and virtually no political ability is being viewed as the next best hope for Pakistani democracy. Dynastic politics emerges triumphant in Pakistan. Asif Ali Zardari, more known for his corruption scandals than for his political acumen, has become the new President of Pakistan.

He succeeds Pervez Musharraf [Images] who had to resign amid growing disaffection in the nation, and finally seems to have to have moved out of the shadow of his wife, Benazir Bhutto [Images]. But in many ways, Zardari owes even this presidency to his late wife because had she not been assassinated last year, it would not have been possible for him to take centre-stage in Pakistani politics. Zardari swept to power with an overwhelming majority of 479 votes out of 702 in the electoral college comprising of the two houses of Parliament and four provincial assemblies.

From playboy to President

These are troubling times for Pakistan. The economy is on the verge of collapse with ordinary Pakistanis beset with rising inflationary pressures even as a balance of payment crisis is looming over the horizon. The insurgency in the tribal areas is at an all-time high and has dramatically moved into the Pakistani hinterland in recent months. The sectarian strife is rearing its ugly head as never before. Pakistan's military and intelligence services, realising an opportunity presented by a seeming collapse of the authority of the mainstream political parties, are once again trying to seize control of their nation's foreign and security policy. The terrorists are being allowed to cross the Line of Control [Images] in Kashmir and Indian and Pakistani militaries have exchanged fire across the border after a lull of several months. Meanwhile, the terrorist safe havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are being ignored, threatening the security of the NATO troops and ordinary Afghans. The relations with the US have hit their nadir because of growing distrust between the two sides.

Zardari is taking office at a time when so much is at stake in Pakistan and global security in more than one way is linked to security and stability in Pakistan. It is not clear if he will measure up to the challenges. His past does not enhance much confidence in his ability to tackle his nation's myriad challenges. 

It is instructive that recent stories hitting the headlines about him clearly reveal his vulnerabilities. His medical records reveal a person who has at various times suffered from dementia, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. Though this diagnosis was used by him as an excuse for his absence from the court proceedings to fight corruption charges brought by the Pakistani government, the records reveal that his emotional instability was caused by his long years in prison. More importantly, his corruption prone image once again took centre-stage last week when the Swiss government decided to release about $60 million dollars worth of assets belonging to Zardari who was accused by the Pakistani authorities of using Swiss bank accounts for money laundering. These charges were dropped as part of the amnesty deal between Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf that allowed Bhutto and her family to return to Pakistan to contest this year's elections.

Ever since he married to Bhutto in 1987, Zardari had used Bhutto's power and influence towards self-aggrandisement. And even in her death, Bhutto leaves behind a potent legacy that has now made her husband the most powerful person in the country.

Zardari's academic qualifications remain meagre and it's not even clear if he passed his secondary school. He was unable to make a mark in politics on his own either. His only success came when he managed to wed Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the former prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. And since then Bhutto's administrations were marked by the corruption scandals involving her husband and his cronies. In Bhutto's second term, he was part of her ministerial team and soon gained notoriety as 'Mr 10 percent' for allegedly demanding kickbacks with some suggesting that he may have made off as much as $1.5 billion in kickbacks. He has been in jail for 11 years though none of the charges against him could be proven.

He went into exile in 2004 and returned last year when her wife was able to negotiate an amnesty deal with Musharraf. Zardari became the joint-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party after Bhutto was assassinated and was the architect of the alliance between PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz headed by Bhutto's adversary, Nawaz Sharif. Though this alliance succeeded in forcing Musharraf to leave office, it unravelled soon thereafter when Zardari refused to reinstate a chief justice who was responsible for his going to jail on corruption charges.

The PPP still retains a majority in Parliament with the help of several smaller parties. It has even pandered to the religious right to win the presidency for Zardari by agreeing to cease air strikes against the Taliban [Images] in exchange for the support of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, an Islamist political party, for Zardari's candidacy.

Despite this Zardari has also tried to project his candidacy as the best bet for the West in the fight against terrorism. The US-Pakistan alliance is under strain with the US military opting for a tough strategy to control the flow of Taliban fighters crossing from Pakistan to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan. The US has made its intent clear in recent months that it will not hesitate to attack Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan's tribal areas if the situation is not controlled by the Pakistani forces themselves. Just last week, the US Special Operations forces launched a commando raid in South Waziristan in Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan prompting strong reactions in Pakistan, Meanwhile, Democratic US Presidential nominee, Barack Obama [Images] has charged Pakistan with using the massive American aid to fight the war on terror for "preparing for a war against India."

Pakistan's military and the Inter Services Intelligence are once again dictating Pakistan's foreign policy and Zardari's attempt in July to make them more accountable did not succeed. Unlike his predecessor, Musharraf, he enjoys little credibility with the military and is likely to find it difficult to get a handle on these very powerful institutions. In fact, the ISI was reportedly engaged actively in trying to ensure the victory of Zardari's rival in the presidential elections.

Zardari assumes Pakistan's presidency at a time when the very survival of the nation is at stake. There is nothing in his past to suggest that he will be successful in overcoming the challenges that Pakistan faces and there is every likelihood that a fresh round of political instability is just round the corner. India should hope for the best but get ready to face the worst in Pakistan in the coming months.


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