08 Sep 2008
Zardari assumes presidency
Facing economic and political challenges from all sides, Asif Ali Zardari is voted Pakistan's new president, but questions remain about his ability to govern.
By Harsh V Pant for ISN Security Watch
Asif Ali Zardari, more known for his corruption scandals than for his political acumen, was elected Pakistan's president, succeeding Pervez Musharraf, who resigned in August amid growing disaffection in the nation.
In many ways, Zardari owes this presidency to his wife, Benazir Bhutto: Had she not been assassinated in December 2007, it would not have been possible for him to take center stage in Pakistani politics. Zardari swept to power 7 September with an overwhelming majority in the electoral college comprising of the two houses of Parliament and four provincial assemblies.
Zardari is taking office at a time when much is at stake in Pakistan: Global security in more than one way is linked to security and stability in the country. It is not clear if he will measure up. His past does not bring much confidence in his ability to tackle his nation's myriad challenges.
Recent stories in the media about him highlight his vulnerabilities. His medical records reveal a person who has at various times suffered from dementia, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Though he used this diagnosis as an excuse for his absence from the court proceedings to fight corruption charges brought by the Pakistani government, the records reveal that his emotional instability was caused by his years in prison.
More importantly, his corruption-prone image once again was the focus last week when the Swiss government decided to release about US$60 million dollars worth of assets belonging to Zardari, who was accused by the Pakistani authorities of using Swiss bank accounts for money laundering. These charges were dropped as part of the amnesty deal between Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf that allowed Bhutto and her family to return to Pakistan to contest this year's elections.
Zardari's academic qualifications remain meagre and it's not even clear if he passed his secondary school. His only success came when he managed to wed Bhutto, daughter of the former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. During her time as prime minister, Bhutto's administrations were marked by the corruption scandals involving her husband and his cronies.
In Bhutto's second term, he was part of her ministerial team and soon gained notoriety as "Mr 10 percent" for allegedly demanding kickbacks with some suggesting that he may have made off with as much as US$1.5 billion in kickbacks. He served 11 years in jail, although none of the charges against him could be proven.
Zardari went into exile in 2004 and returned last year when his wife was able to negotiate an amnesty deal with the then-president Musharraf. Zardari became the joint-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) after Bhutto was assassinated and was the architect of the alliance between PPP and Pakistan Muslim League (N) headed by Bhutto's adversary, Nawaz Sharif. Though this alliance succeeded in forcing Musharraf to leave office, it unravelled soon thereafter when Zardari refused to reinstate a chief justice who was responsible for his going to jail on corruption charges.
The PPP still retains majority in the Parliament with the help of several smaller parties. It has even pandered to the religious right to win the presidency for Zardari by agreeing to cease air strikes against the Taliban in exchange for the support of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, an Islamist political party, for Zardari's candidacy.
Despite this, Zardari has also tried to project his candidacy as the best bet for the West in the fight against terror. The US-Pakistan alliance is under strain with the US military opting for a tough strategy to control the flow of Taliban fighters crossing from Pakistan to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The US has made clear in recent months that it will not hesitate to attack Taliban sanctuaries inside the tribal areas if the Pakistani forces do not take control of the situation themselves. Just last week, US Special Operations forces launched a commando raid in South Waziristan in Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, prompting strong reactions in Pakistan. Meanwhile, US Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama has accused Pakistan of using the massive American aid to fight the war on terror for "preparing for a war against India."
Pakistan's military and the Inter-Services Intelligence are once again dictating Pakistan's foreign policy and Zardari's attempt in July to make them more accountable did not succeed. Unlike his predecessor, he enjoys little credibility with the military and is likely to find it difficult to get a handle on these very powerful institutions. In fact, the ISI was reportedly engaged actively in trying to ensure the victory of Zardari's rival in the presidential elections.
Zardari assumes Pakistan's presidency at a time when the very survival of the nation is at stake. There is nothing in his past to suggest that he will be successful in overcoming the challenges that the country faces and there is every likelihood that a fresh round of political instability is just round the corner. The international community should hope for the best but expect the worst in Pakistan in the coming months.
Harsh V Pant is a Reader in International Relations at King's College London in the Department of Defense Studies. He is also an Associate with the King's Centre for Science and Security Studies and an Affiliate with the King's India Institute. His current research is focused on Asian security issues. His most recent books include Contemporary Debates in Indian Foreign and Security Policy (Palgrave Macmillan), Indian Foreign Policy in a Unipolar World (Routledge), and The China Syndrome (HarperCollins).
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
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