Pakistan’s new President: How did Asif Zardari manage to win?

Pakistan’s new President: How did Asif Zardari manage to win?

On 6th September, Asif Ali Zardari,(52), the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has won a sweeping victory in Pakistan’s presidential election. The president is elected by secret ballots in the national and four provincial assemblies. He is the 14th President of the country.

The two daughters of Mr Zardari and Ms Bhutto hugged friends in delight in the gallery of the national assembly as the results became clear. Members of Mr Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) declared the result to be a "victory for democracy".

The election was called after former General Pervez Musharraf resigned rather than risk being impeached. Many observers say that Musharraf had to resign under US pressure and assurance that he would be allowed to live peacefully and with immunity from any charges of allegations committed during his tenure.

Mr Zardari won 481 votes out of 702, far more than the 352 votes that would have guaranteed him victory, leaving his two rivals trailing far behind.

In Sindh province, Mr Zardari won all 65 votes. In North West Frontier Province (NWFP) he got 56 out of the 65 votes. In Balochistan province he won 59 of the 65 votes.

By contrast he only won 22 out of 65 seats in Punjab province, the heartland of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party.

His election victory represents an extraordinary turnaround for the most ‘mistrusted’ politician in the country. He spent long eight years in jail while President Musharraf was the President. It was again Musharraf who released him in 2004 and granted amnesty for corruption charges in 2007 as part of political haggling between Musharraf and his wife late Benazir Bhutto.

When he was made co-chairman of the Pakistan’s People’s Party, he was perceived as a weak leader and to keep the image of the party his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, a student in Oxford, was made the other co-chairman. It was claimed that late Benazir Bhuwanted them to lead the party.

The other estranged Bhutto’s family that has opposed Benazir Bhutto’s “ selfish” style of politics see Zardari’s victory as a Machiavellian game. They allege that Zardari has been always a “playboy” and is widely known as “10% per cent” of any deal made during Benazir Bhutto’s government. It is an irony that he has become the President of the country. What hope the people of the country can expect from him except large promises, smooth excuses, conspiracy, chicanery and corruption!

Why did he manage to win?

First, Mr Zardari has been found to be a shrewd politician. He has taken firm control of Bhutto’s ruling Pakistan People Party (PPP), leading it to electoral victory in February. Bhutto’s will named her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari as party chairman and him as co-chairman.
Mr Zardari, who is unpopular with his party’s rank and file, has wrapped himself in the Bhutto mantle, drawing on the cultish support that stems from Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a prime minister who was toppled and hanged by the military in the late 1970s.
Second, he surprisingly outwitted the former Prime Minister and veteran politician Nawaz Sharif in the political game. He engineered a coalition government with Nawaz Sharif and later refused to fulfill pledges to restore all the sacked judges or to reduce the powers of the President to dissolve the parliament and the assemblies in the provinces.

Third,, he is believed to have convinced the Bush administration through his friend Afghan –born US Ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, that his government needs as much power as possible and that means having his party people as President and Prime Minister so that his government would be able to defeat the militants and Talebans in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He also impressed upon the US that it would be counter-productive to reduce the powers of the President under the current political and security environment in the country.

Fourth, he is believed to have done a deal with the most powerful institution in the country, the army. He assured that his government would protect their interests, taking into account the army’s foreign strategic concerns and making sure its share of the national budget is well stocked. The government would ensure a steady supply of aid and equipment from the US to meet the army’s needs to keep up with its neighbour and rival, India.
Fifth and finally, he was able to convince small parties in Pakistan that he was the best person to deal with the problems of smaller and less populated provinces because he belonged to Sindh and not to the Punjab, the largest province in Pakistan (Nawaz Sharif hails from the Punjab). He has made sensible efforts for reconciliation in insurgency-hit Balochistan and has forged links with the PPP’s former rivals in the troubled North West Frontier Province, and the MQM, which governs Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

Mr Zardari faces severe economic problems, including low stock prices, power shortage, inflation, soaring food prices and a rampant Islamist insurgency that are threatening Pakistan’s stability. During the voting, a bomb killed at least 30 people near Peshawar city.

Many analysts doubt whether his government would be able to address economic problems and stamp out militants from Pakistan because his government would be locked in horns with the Nawaz Sharif’s party—Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) on national issues.

Nawaz Sharif has been found more popular with the middle class and lawyers on the question of restoration of all sacked judges including the independent-minded former chief justice Iftekhar Chudhry. Many analysts say that Sharif could eventually wipe out PPP’s majority in the next national parliamentary election.

There is another dimension in Pakistan politics to be noted. While the US is believed to have lent strong support to Zardari, Saudi Arabia is learnt to provide robust support to Nawaz Sharif. Accordingly, Zardari government would face a longer term all-out battle with Nawaz Sharif and when two major political parties are at loggerheads, the country’s unity is destroyed and nothing moves swiftly and without hurdles.

A weak and beleagured government normally cannot deliver the desired goods and in this case stamping out the militants and Talebans from Pakistan by the US.

Furthermore majority people in Pakistan believe that the so-called “war on terror” has been imposed on Pakistan by the US and it is not their war and Pakistan has nothing to do with it. The “war on terror” is unpopular in Pakistan.

Analysts doubt whether Zardari government would be able to control the powerful ISI-( Inter-Services Intelligence) in not providing support to militants in the Indian-occupied Kashmir and in Afghanistan. The two territories have become magnets for foreign militants because they see war against “Islam” in these territories after Iraq. Some say that the Talebans and militants have moved from Iraq to tribal areas in Pakistan as they found safe haven.

President Karzai of Afghanistan has been well disposed with India where he was educated. He wants to develop good and strong relations with India with a view to reducing Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan. . India has been engaged in a big way with more than US$1 billion in assisting Afghanistan including the construction of a new parliament building in Kabul.

Karzai has been warning Pakistan not to destabilize his country by sending militants and Talebans to his country from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan had exchanged “war of words” in the matter.

Pakistan does not want to lose Afghanistan to India as a strategic policy. Pakistan does not want to be sandwiched between India and Afghanistan that is being perceived gradually falling under Indian sphere of influence.



The middle-class and the elite both have a distaste for Zardari, despite the fact that he’s never been convicted of anything," political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi said. "He is guilty in the court of public opinion. If there was a direct election, there’s no question Zardari would come last."

Although for Zardari, this election victory is extraordinary, he would face many political and economic hurdles in running the country of 160 million people. Furthermore the country is divided on major national issues and the question is how long the PPP can govern the country until it has to call for general election to sort out the political mess the major parties have created.

by Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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