U.S. Relying on Two in People’s Party to Help Stabilize Pakistan
The Washington Post
By Robin Wright and Griff Witte

With the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the Bush administration is now depending on two politicians — one accused in the 1990s of being a crook and the other still viewed as almost powerless — to help prop up President Pervez Musharraf and stabilize volatile Pakistan, according to U.S. officials, regional experts and Pakistanis.

Asif Ali Zardari, who has assumed the regency of his wife’s Pakistan People’s Party, is nicknamed “Mr. 10 Percent” for alleged corruption by profiting off government contracts when Bhutto was prime minister in the 1990s, charges for which he spent 11 years in prison. He will remain caretaker of Pakistan’s largest opposition movement until their 19-year-old son finishes studies at Oxford and is ready to assume party control — potentially many years away.

“He represents the old, entrenched faction of the PPP that resisted modernization of politics and sees parties as an extension of family politics, which is connected to the aura of corruption around him,” said Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who led the party during Bhutto’s eight-year exile, is the party candidate to become prime minister if the PPP wins the largest vote in the Feb. 18 elections and forms a coalition government. First elected to parliament in 1970, he lacks both charisma and clout, according to U.S. officials and Pakistani experts.

“Fahim is unknown and not a strong player. As a feudal landlord, he represents the Pakistani elite in a party dependent on the poor for the majority of its membership. As long as he is tied to Zardari, it will also be difficult for him to gain leverage with Musharraf or pressure him into reform,” said Farhana Ali of the Rand Corp.

Although the United States has contact with an array of politicians, Washington is still hoping that the deal it tried to broker between Bhutto and Musharraf last fall — to forge a new moderate center and work together after elections — remains the way to salvage Musharraf’s government. But the personality and political dynamics have changed dramatically with Bhutto gone, especially within the PPP, U.S. officials said.

“Not only are the individuals weak and vulnerable, but the party is less coherent than it was under Bhutto as the standard-bearer and disciplinarian,” acknowledged a senior U.S. official involved in Pakistan policy.

The biggest unknown is which way the PPP will lean. For the Bush administration, the worst-case scenario is the PPP aligning with the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a coalition to try to change the constitution and oust Musharraf, said Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution.

A political alliance between the PPP and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N Party was once as unlikely as a Democratic-Republican coalition in the United States, said Lawrence K. Robinson, a former U.S. diplomat in Pakistan who knows all the current players. But both parties now share more common views of Musharraf.

Sharif will not rest until Musharraf, who toppled him in a 1999 military coup, is ousted, Robinson said. “And there’s such a strong feeling now in the PPP that Musharraf is just like Zia ul-Haq, just another Islamist-loving military dictator who had a role in the death of a Bhutto,” he added. Former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, was hanged during Mohammed Zia ul-Haq’s rule.

Zardari and Musharraf also have a history of hostility. Zardari was in prison under Musharraf and has been an outspoken critic of Musharraf since his release. After Bhutto’s death, he accused Musharraf of criminal negligence, and referred repeatedly to a party allied with the president as “the killer league.”

U.S. officials counter that no two parties are likely to win enough votes to be able to change the constitution, noting that an International Republican Institute poll in November gave the PPP about 35 percent support and Sharif’s party about 25 percent. The poll was taken before Bhutto’s death, however, and does not factor in potential sympathy or anger votes.

But the direction and leadership of the PPP, the most organized political party in Pakistan, are in doubt. “The party is adrift without a strong Bhutto at the top, and it has to grow up, which will take time,” Robinson said.

Although he served in the national assembly in the 1990s, Zardari is disliked by many in the PPP and is expected to struggle to keep its three major factions together. His claim to control rests on Bhutto’s will, in which she reportedly named her husband as her successor. He also comes to the job with significant baggage, including a reputation for lavish living on the taxpayer’s dime.

Supporters dispute the image, saying he matured in prison and could be a serious political actor. “Most of the charges were never proven. The government filed a plethora of cases, and they dragged on for 11 years. He served more time awaiting trial than he would have gotten if he had been tried and convicted of any crimes,” said Husain Haqqani, a Boston University professor whose wife is running for parliament on the PPP ticket.

Others note that Swiss authorities also indicted Zardari in 1998 for money laundering. “It may have been exaggerated, but the reputation is not inaccurate,” said Frederic Grare of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Fahim also has no national following, a key reason Bhutto selected him to lead the party in her absence. Haqqani compared him to Gerald Ford, “meaning a mild consensus builder who moves cautiously.” If he should become prime minister, other experts caution that he may be easily manipulated by Zardari or Musharraf and would not be a strong voice for a moderate center — the U.S. goal for Pakistan.

Witte reported from Islamabad.

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