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Nation haunted by old demons of corruption and military rule

Text by Matthieu MABIN

Latest update : 2009-12-29

Pakistan had hoped for a shift to more transparent and democratic governance when President Azif Ali Zardari came to power in 2008, nine months after his wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. But two years on, these hopes remain unfulfilled.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari came to power in Sept. 2008, sparking hopes of a regime change in authoritarian Pakistan. Fifteen months down the line, he has become an isolated, weakened and unpopular leader.

Buried away in Islamabad’s vast presidential palace, the husband of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who rose to power after her assassination in December 2007, is now a lame duck president.

On Dec. 17, Zardari suffered a serious blow when his country’s Supreme Court cancelled a 2007 amnesty law that shielded himself and several of his ministers from facing corruption charges. The bill had been forced onto the Pakistani parliament during the presidency of Zardari’s predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, and extended its protection to some 8,000 high-ranking officials suspected of corruption.

“How could we accept that these people stay in power without answering to the justice system? They should resign, clarify their situation and, if they are acquitted, return to office,” comments Marvi Memon, a young opposition lawmaker.

But President Zardari does not seem ready to leave any time soon: he claims he cannot resign from office because of his country’s “instability”.

Meanwhile, the army pulls the strings

With Zardari's election had come hopes of more transparent and democratic governance in Pakistan. But his administration remains riddled with corruption and military leaders continue to pull the country’s strings from the shadows.

The army remains a highly influential and powerful body in Pakistan to this day. The country experienced four military coups in the past 60 years, the last of which was carried out by former General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. At the time, the military strongman had argued that it was the army’s duty to take control in a country where political leaders were “corrupt and unable to govern”. Some observers are quick to say that Pakistan today is in a very similar situation.

Pakistani military chief Ashfaq Kayani, observers say, reportedly plays a very active role in national affairs. Last winter, for example, his intervention stopped 10,000 opposition protesters from storming the presidential palace.

Kayani has gradually emerged as the last guarantor of some kind of stability in Islamabad, where leadership is poisoned by business rackets and corruption. Although Kayani officially has no presidential ambitions, he has become the regime’s unavoidable de facto strongman. His pro-democratic views are appreciated by Western democrats, making him Washington’s main contact and ally in Islamabad. He devised key anti-terrorism strategies with US officials, reporting to Zardari only once he had made most key decisions.

Next year, however, Kayani will reach the army’s mandatory retirement age and be forced to step down. Kayani's retirement is certain but if Zardari resigns, the country could well experience two significant regime changes in less than a year, leading to a period of even greater uncertainty.



Date created : 2009-12-29