Pakistan's Zardari, Once on the Sidelines, Eyes Presidency

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 5, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 4 -- Two decades ago, Asif Ali Zardari was virtually unknown in the high-flying political circles in which his new wife, Benazir Bhutto, traveled.

When the son of a cinema owner married the daughter of a legendary president, he told reporters that he had no taste for politics. "One politician in a family is enough," Zardari said.

But since Bhutto was assassinated in December, Zardari has demonstrated an enormous appetite for what he once claimed to reject. He has taken control of his wife's Pakistan People's Party, led it to its ruling perch in the country's government and, on the eve of a parliamentary vote, positioned himself as the leading contender to replace his wife's onetime nemesis, Pervez Musharraf, as president of the republic.

If Zardari is elected Saturday, his ascension will consolidate his party's hold on the government and bring a new era in U.S.-Pakistan relations after years of White House backing for Musharraf's military rule. Faced with intensifying U.S. demands to quash the threat from the rising Taliban insurgency within the country's borders, Pakistan's next president will have to navigate the choppy waters of the country's alliance with the United States at a time when anti-American sentiment here has never been stronger.

Analysts say Zardari may be just the man for the job of managing the Pakistan-U.S. alliance. He is a former resident of New York's affluent Upper East Side. He often chooses well-tailored two-piece suits over the traditional, loose-fitting salwar-kameez that is the de rigueur dress of politicians in this majority-Muslim nation.

"He is much more aligned with the U.S., and even more so after his wife's death," said retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a leading political analyst. "He is also by temperament and background oriented toward the West."

"I think the American relationship with Pakistan stays the same," Zardari said in a recent interview with Newsweek's Lally Weymouth. "The experiment with the general has failed. Therefore, the U.S. has decided to support the democratic forces. [The civilian government] will be weak for the moment, but we will learn from our mistakes, and we will go on and improve. That is the journey that the country and the people have to take to make a strong democracy."

Zardari is known to many people here as "Mr. 10 Percent" because of allegations that he raked in millions of dollars in kickbacks during his wife's two terms as prime minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Zardari spent 11 years in prison on corruption charges that were lodged against him when he was a member of Parliament and minister in Bhutto's government. But he was never convicted and in recent months, Pakistan's government dropped the case as part of an amnesty deal that Bhutto negotiated with Musharraf last year.

But the case continues to haunt Zardari. Since he declared his presidential candidacy Aug. 23, details have emerged from the array of corruption cases lodged against him not only in Pakistan but in Switzerland, Spain and Britain.

Late last month, questions regarding Zardari's mental health surfaced after court documents in the now-defunct British corruption case were made public. According to the documents, which were first reported by the Financial Times, a New York psychiatrist found Zardari to be suffering from dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The parties of the two candidates opposing Zardari in the presidential race have savaged him, saying a history of mental illness should bar him from running for office.

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