Eight months after inheriting a political dynasty from his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari is on the cusp of becoming Pakistan’s president.
Victory tomorrow in a vote by national and provincial legislators would cap the rise of a man who spent 11 years in prison for alleged kickbacks that earned him the nickname “Mr. 10 Percent.” His Pakistan Peoples Party and coalition partners control 428 of 702 electoral-college votes, according to the Daily Times newspaper.
Capturing the presidency would solidify Zardari’s grip on power in a nuclear-armed nation central to the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He parted ways with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last month after declaring his candidacy, earning the backing of other small parties and ending a fractious five- month partnership that had struggled to contain terrorist attacks and spiraling inflation.
“Zardari has skillfully remade alliances and has a chance to build a government that can begin addressing our crises,” said Syed Khwaja Alqama, a political science professor at Bahauddin Zakariya University in the central city of Multan.
As successor to Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president Aug. 18 to avoid impeachment, Zardari, 52, would honor a promise to repeal extra powers the former military ruler gave the office, including the right to dissolve parliament, Farahnaz Ispahani, his spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview.
Only a Few
Meeting that pledge may help him rebuild trust after breaking other promises in recent months. The coalition with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League splintered after Zardari reneged on agreements to reinstate 60 judges fired by Musharraf and to select a presidential candidate from outside the main political parties.
Zardari “is personally charming” and ready to meet opponents, though he tends to “walk out” on deals and “really consults and trusts only a few people,” said Shaheen Sehbai, a political commentator who became friends with Zardari after visiting him in prison a decade ago.
Both Zardari and Sharif say that to revive growth they will pursue the economic liberalizations, including sales of shares in state-owned companies and telecommunications deregulation, begun in the 1990s. Occupied by their power struggles this year, neither has unveiled a detailed set of policies, and the government is struggling to avoid defaulting on debts.
Last week, Pakistan’s government debt was judged to have become the world’s riskiest, based on the price of protecting it through credit-default swaps. Inflation reached 24.3 percent in July, the highest rate in 30 years.
Strength and Vision
Zardari denied interest in the presidency until last week, when Peoples Party leaders “unanimously requested him to take it on” because “of his strength and vision,” Ispahani said poll sponsored by the Washington-based International Republican Institute.
The split between the two has contributed to “a deeply polarized public opinion” that may continue to hamper governance, said Muhammad Waseem, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Zardari “is perceived by many people as too compliant with Washington” in supporting the military’s use of force against the Taliban in Pakistan’s northwest, Waseem said.
While Sharif says he is prepared to cooperate with the U.S. on battling al-Qaeda operatives and other terrorists, he stresses negotiations in dealing with the Taliban. The U.S. sees little distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which it ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001 for harboring the terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Zardari was born in 1956 to a wealthy landholding family in Nawabshah, in southern Sindh province, and settled in Karachi to dabble in the family business and play polo.
He was catapulted into Pakistani headlines in 1987 when Bhutto’s mother arranged for her daughter to marry him. Benazir Bhutto’s father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been executed in 1977 after a military coup. Zardari played a minor role in Bhutto’s first government, from 1988 to 1990, and was minister for investment in her second term.
Sharif twice succeeded Bhutto and both times his government arrested Zardari on corruption charges. In 1991, Musharraf toppled Sharif in a coup, with Zardari still appealing for his release from jail. Musharraf ordered Zardari freed in 2004.
Zardari, whose graft conviction was overturned, denies all charges of corruption. Musharraf, 65, gave him and his wife an amnesty in October as part of the deal that brought her back from exile to contest elections. She was assassinated by Muslim extremists on Dec. 27, two months before the PPP and Muslim League triumphed in a landslide vote.
Zardari’s “time in prison changed him,” said Talib Rizvi, a Lahore attorney who defended him in the 1990s. He was incarcerated “with the poorest people and brought them fans and clothes.”
After Bhutto’s assassination, her will designated Zardari to lead their party. Zardari named the couple’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal, the official chairman and said he would be in charge until his son completed study at the U.K.’s Oxford University.
The elder Zardari is “a flawed figure, but the important, positive fact is that Pakistan is about to get a civilian leader through a political process,” said Ishtiaq Ahmed, international relations professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.