Rocketed into office following the death of his wife Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s president is a politician who brings both skill and controversy to the office, with corruption charges continuing to erode political and public support for “Mr. 10%”.
Asif Ali Zardari’s political career began in 1987 when he married into Pakistan’s preeminent political family. His wife, Benazir Bhutto, was the daughter of a former prime minister who would herself later assume that office on two separate occasions, from 1988-1990 and again from 1993-1996.
Although he too came from a wealthy family, Zardari was not widely known outside of Pakistan until December 2007, when he was thrust on to the international stage following his wife’s assassination by Islamic militants. Zardari ascended to the presidency on a wave of public sympathy following Bhutto’s death, but his journey to high political power has been marked by controversy and allegations of rampant corruption.
One year after they were married, Benazir Bhutto assumed the office of prime minister. That same year, Zardari embarked on his own political career as a member of the national assembly. Controversially, amid charges of nepotism, Bhutto invited her husband to join her administration as Pakistan’s investments and environment minister. During his tenure in the cabinet opponents accused Zardari of widespread corruption, branding him with the nickname “Mr. 10%” over allegations that he siphoned public funds and took huge investment kickbacks.
Both opponents and government investigators alleged that Zardari had embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars out of the country, with some estimates rising as high as 1.5 billion dollars. Zardari, for his part, denied the charges and claimed they were politically motivated by, among others, opponents of his Pakistan Peoples Party. Nonetheless, he was arrested and jailed from 1997 to 2004.
In addition to charges of corruption, his opponents also alleged that he plotted the 1996 murder of Murtaza Bhutto, his wife’s brother. He was later cleared of murder charges. Zardari had been arrested twice and joined his wife in exile until October 2007 when then-president Pervez Musharraf granted amnesty to politicians who had been in office between the years of 1986 and 1999.
After Bhutto’s death, Zardari organized a political coalition that would catapult him to the presidency less than a year later in 2008. Yet even amid nostalgia for his wife and his meteoric comeback, Zardari’s past continued to haunt him as the clouds of earlier corruption and murder charges hung overhead.
Two years on from his election, Zardari faces considerable skepticism across Pakistani, most notably among the country’s armed forces. In a country where there has been a long history of generals overthrowing the civilian leadership, Zardari’s tense relationship with the military is another source of great concern for many Pakistanis.
Furthermore, the president faces significant opposition from within his own party who accuse him of appointing cronies over more experienced veterans, raising suspicions that while he may no longer be “Mr. 10%,” he is still the same politician.