Analysis: Pakistan’s future leader?

On the eve of elections, Pakistanis wonder how Asif Ali Zardari quickly rose to power.

The alliance between Zardari (left) and Sharif collapsed over the failure to reinstate deposed judges [GALLO/GETTY]

President Asif Ali Zardari.

It is a description that has led to much disquiet in Pakistan ever since the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) named him their candidate for the highest office.

The presidential election, which follows the resignation of Pervez Musharraf, the former president, last month after nine years in power, will be held on September 6 and legislators will be asked to cast their ballots.

Historically, the day is observed as Defence of Pakistan Day.

However, apart from party loyalists, few have been able to defend the PPP decision to allow Benazir Bhutto’s widower to occupy the most powerful office in Pakistan.

The president is the supreme commander of the armed forces, the head of the National Command Authority — theoretically, with a finger on the nuclear button — and has the power to dismiss the government and parliament.

He also makes the most critical appointments from armed forces chiefs and provincial governors to the country’s chief justice.

Such wide-ranging powers for a man with a controversial past and an even more controversial present has led to much discontent about what awaits Pakistan after his election as president.

Trust deficit

Pakistan election facts

Pakistan’s electoral college is made up of two houses of parliament and four provincial assemblies.

The National Assembly is the lower house, and the Senate is the upper house. 

In all, 700 votes are up for grabs (but for the two seats in the National Assembly still waiting bye-polls) under the formula governing presidential election.

Given the party position and affiliations, if all legislators vote according to party lines, Zardari should be able to secure at least 424 votes, against 150 of PML-N’s Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui and 126 by PML-Q’s Senator Mushahid Hussain.

Zardari anointed himself the party’s de facto leader following Bhutto’s assassination last December citing a handwritten will she purportedly wrote.

Many doubt it is genuine.

He then sidelined her circle of trusted lieutenants and repeatedly reneged on public pledges of restoring deposed judges.

Almost every newspaper of national reckoning has balked at the prospect of Zardari occupying the presidency, given the gnawing credibility gap and his uncertain mental health following revelations made by the Financial Times last month.  

Zardari was diagnosed in 2007 with serious illnesses including dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in medical reports spanning over two years.

According to the paper, court records showed Zardari had used the medical diagnoses to argue successfully for the postponement of a now-defunct English High Court case in which Pakistan’s government was suing him for alleged corruption.

The PPP denies Zardari’s health is in doubt but pointedly evades any discussion on the specifics of the medical records. 

The elections have so worried some that even, Shaheen Sehbai, the group editor of The News, a leading Pakistani newspaper, and a self-professed Zardari friend, called on the army “to restore balance”.

“Let the power of the guns and barrels be used, for a change, in the interest of the nation and the people. It is obvious that the politicians cannot clean the dirt as they are neither visionaries, nor that tall, nor experienced, nor prepared nor motivated to look beyond their noses,” Sehbai argued.

Fantastic script

For Zardari, the spoils of the highest office would mark the culmination of a fantastic script even by Pakistan’s notoriously, unpredictable plots: from a playboy to president.

After marrying Bhutto in 1987, he quickly became a prime mover-and-shaker when only a year later she rose to become the Muslim world’s first woman prime minister. Bhutto was ousted on corruption charges in 1990.

Bhutto won a second term in 1993 when her nemesis, Nawaz Sharif, was also shown the door, but three years later her own handpicked president sacked her government on similar charges of misrule. Subsequently, Zardari was jailed and Bhutto went into exile.

The charges, which the Bhutto couple always asserted were politically motivated, could not be proved. Zardari was released in 2004 after spending eight years in jail.

Comeback trail

The two won a reprieve when decade-old corruption cases were quashed in 2007 under a controversial deal with Musharraf.

This was part of the former president’s so-called national reconciliation drive overseen by foreign powers to facilitate a new power equation to continue the war-on-terror with the ex-general as president and Bhutto his new prime minister. 

Bhutto was assassinated following a public rally in Rawalpindi on December 27 and Musharraf resigned under the threat of impeachment only last month.

His defeat came after a sweeping rejection of his allies in the February 18 polls, which returned his sworn opponents to power.

Following Bhutto’s assassination, Zardari returned to take the reins of the PPP and stunned his party by producing a handwritten will, which purportedly, directed the party to follow her husband’s lead until they decided with consensus on a new leader.

Far from evolving consensus, Zardari quickly anointed their 19-year-old son Bilawal as the party’s chairman while he pledged to look after the party until the young scion completed his education in faraway Oxford.

The co-chairman has since sidelined the inner circle of his slain spouse, prominent among them Amin Fahim, a veteran who led the party in Bhutto’s absence, and was primed to become the PM.

Despite consolidating his hold on the party, critics noted how Zardari did not trust any member of his party to be even a covering candidate, let alone run for the highest office.

He named Faryal Talpur, his sister, to be the alternate candidate.

Hour of reckoning

Not everyone is convinced that Zardari has earned his spurs. Yousuf Nazar, an economist and author of The Gathering Storm in Pakistan: Political Economy of a Security State says the PPP leader has a misplaced sense of overconfidence:

“Zardari needs to understand that the power bequeathed to him by that larger-than-life figure, Benazir Bhutto, and Musharraf’s exit had more to do with his own blunders and with the policy of the US that never really trusted him in the first place and had become increasingly frustrated with his double-dealing particularly since February 2008,” Nazar said.

Of particular concern to Pakistanis is how Zardari will perform once he is ensconced in the presidency. For a man who runs the party by personal fiat — the directions come through two mobile phones which he keeps in each of his jacket pockets —  it will be a major test of his political skills to stay apolitical.

Traditionally, a civilian president is expected to resign from his party to maintain the neutrality of the office. To be sure, his predecessor in the party, Farooq Leghari, too, had to give up the party membership to become president in 1993.

Word is already doing the rounds that Zardari may hand over the day-to-day running of the party to his sister Faryal but such a move could lead to further fissures within the party.

The writer is News Editor at Dawn News, an independent Pakistani TV channel.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

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