Pakistan's parliament on Saturday elected Asif Ali Zardari, widower of slain ex-PM Benazir Bhutto, as Pakistan's president. Hours earlier, a blast in the city of Peshawar left at least 33 dead and around 80 injured, local police said.
It wasn’t even close in the end. Asif Ali Zardari won 481 out of 702 electoral college votes, a testimony to his mastery of the insider wheeling and dealing needed to secure the support of Pakistan’s political elite.
To win the election, Zardari needed a simple majority of votes from the two-chamber national parliament and Pakistan’s four provincial assemblies.
And yet the astonishing thing is that he has come from almost nowhere. Just months ago, he was happy to play the role of playboy husband to former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto or, as one Pakistani commentator put it, third violin in Benazir’s freewheeling orchestra.
Her assassination in December by Islamist militants changed all that. Zardari was propelled to the forefront of Pakistani politics on a tidal wave of emotion
So fast in fact that nobody has really had the time to ponder whether this is a man fit for the job.
Propelled to the top
Charming, sharp-witted and, if you believe his opponents, as slippery as a snake, 53-year-old Zardari is nothing if not controversial.
The son of a landlord and an unsuccessful cinema owner, Zardari sealed his entry into politics when he married Benazir Bhutto – daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – in 1987. Since then he’s courted scandal all the way – earning the soubriquet Mr 10% for the size of the kickbacks he allegedly took from businesses in his years as a minister in Benazir’s governments.
He has served two lengthy spells in prison and faced a litany of charges that range from implication in murder, to corruption, embezzlement and drug trafficking. But nothing has stuck. Zardari dismisses the accusations with a contemptuous curl of his thick moustache – the calculated smears of unscrupulous political opponents.
To get where he is today, Zardari has endured the mother of all roller-coaster rides – and it is probably not over yet.
Not least because he makes enemies just as fast as he makes friends. Take Nawaz Sharif, another ex-prime minister, the leader of the PML-N and his erstwhile ally from the coalition that crushed ex-President Musharraf in last February’s parliamentary elections.
Sharif has pulled out from the alliance and is waiting for an opportunity to take his revenge on what he regards as several acts of betrayal. The way the leader of the PML-N sees things, Zardari made him a number of promises he hasn’t kept – among them, restoration of the judges sacked by Musharraf last November, reduction in the powers of the presidency and a commitment not to run in the presidential election.
Nawaz Sharif is a powerful man with the potential to stir up considerable trouble for Zardari if things start to go wrong.
Which they could well do. In truth, his real problems begin now. The question everyone is asking is how can such a controversial figure hope to unite such a large and fractious country at a time of such internal and external instability?
Little room to manoeuvre
The pressures on him will be massive and contradictory. How to balance, for instance, the demands and expectations of the United States for resolute action against Islamist militants with the deep-seated and growing anti-American sentiment that is sweeping the country? He needs US money, but can he afford to fulfil its demands?
The talk is of a deal with the army. This, allegedly, will guarantee Pakistan’s most powerful institution with the funding, status and hardware it craves in return for a crackdown against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the North West Frontier and tribal areas, plus a promise to stay out of politics.
If things are as they seem, that will go down well in Washington so long as the army proves up to the task – which is by no means certain on past performance. A failed counter-insurgency, encouraged by dissident elements within Pakistan’s security services, and coupled with an economy already spiraling out of control, anti-Americanism and a resentful Nawaz Sharif could make Zardari wish he had never gone back to Pakistan.
Date created : 2008-09-06