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.

News of the psychological reports and reports that a Swiss court would soon release about $60 million in frozen assets to Zardari after closing its case against him prompted sharp criticism from Pakistani Sen. Mushahid Hussain, the presidential candidate for Musharraf's former Pakistan Muslim League-Q party.

"In the West, such a controversial track record would make any person clearly ineligible to hold such a high office as the presidency," Hussain said.

Zardari declined repeated requests for an interview with The Washington Post. But in a column that the newspaper published this week, he called the allegations of bribery and money laundering "unsubstantiated" and "politically motivated."

Aides to Zardari have mounted a vigorous defense, saying that the reports of $60 million in frozen assets are untrue. They have also sought to recast his reported mental health problems as a natural but temporary result of years of torture. "Like anyone who has been through 11 1/2 years in prison, his health was affected at that time. But he is a remarkable and resilient person. He is in extremely good health in every sense," said Farah Ispahani, a top spokeswoman for Zardari's party.

Yet even some party insiders acknowledge that years of public scrutiny, numerous threats to his life and his wife's highly public assassination last year have made the presumptive next president seem paranoid at times. Zardari's circle of trusted aides and advisers is relatively small as a result. "At times, he is someone who tries too hard to read between the lines, and he seems to be someone who is quite fearful of the invisible hand of Pakistan's intelligence agencies," said a party adviser who, like several people interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities.

Under Musharraf, the country's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and Military Intelligence Bureau became powerful tools used to discredit his opponents. Shortly before Bhutto was killed in an attack in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, she said that Ijaz Shah, onetime director of the Military Intelligence Bureau, and Hamid Gul, former director of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, were two of three men close to Musharraf who should be held responsible were she to be killed. The allegation has never been proved. Yet, fears about Zardari's security have persisted.

An assassination attempt on Zardari's political associate, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, on Wednesday served to raise already heightened concerns about Zardari's safety. Those concerns, his supporters say, are one reason he has largely refrained from making public appearances or granting interviews in the days leading up to the election.

If he becomes president, he will face the daunting test of a divided Parliament. In recent days, he has come under attack from former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his onetime partner in the coalition government formed after their parties were swept to power in Feb. 18 national parliamentary elections. Sharif worked closely with Zardari after the elections to mount a united front against Musharraf. But the coalition collapsed a week after Musharraf resigned Aug. 18 in the face of impeachment charges.

Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 military coup, said he decided to quit the coalition after Zardari reneged on a promise to restore Pakistan's tattered judiciary. Incensed by Zardari's decision to run for office, Sharif selected former Supreme Court chief justice Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui to compete against him on his party's ticket. A longtime political ally of Sharif, Siddiqui was appointed chief justice in July 1999 but was ousted months later when he refused to endorse the military coup led by Musharraf that ended Sharif's term as prime minister.

The fates of dozens of judges fired by Musharraf last year have become a defining factor in Pakistani politics. Sharif has been a vocal advocate for the judges' return to the bench. He has especially insisted on the reinstatement of the ousted Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. A staunch opponent of government corruption, Chaudhry could pose a threat to the legal indemnity granted to Zardari if restored to the high court.

Zardari has studiously avoided making specific references to Chaudhry but has vowed to restore the judiciary in general.

The quest to strike a balance among the judiciary, legislature and executive could be another test for Zardari if he becomes president. A series of amendments passed under Musharraf's government allows the president accumulated sweeping powers, including the power to dissolve Parliament.

"If I am elected president, one of my highest priorities will be to support the prime minister, the National Assembly and the Senate to amend the constitution to bring back into balance the powers of the presidency and thereby reduce its ability to bring down democratic governance," Zardari wrote in his column this week.

Whether Zardari has the opportunity to deliver on that and other promises will be determined Saturday, when Pakistan's four provincial assemblies, the National Assembly and the Senate take up the vote for the country's next president. The winning candidate needs 352 votes out of 702. The next president is expected to be sworn in next week.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company