Asif Ali Zardari

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Asif Ali Zardari

Making History in Pakistan Simply by Serving a Full Term


The New York Times September 8, 2013

Term as president: 2008-13

Over his five years in power (2008-13), Mr. Zardari fended off threat after threat. Senior judges sought to unseat him through corruption prosecutions. Generals murmured to diplomats about the possibility of a coup. The Taliban vowed to kill him. And large portions of the Pakistani news media and public seemed to revel in ridiculing or condemning him.

He leaves with the Pakistani economy a shambles, and with the once-mighty political machine he still leads, the Pakistan People’s Party, in disarray after a crushing election defeat.

Yet for all that, Mr. Zardari, 58, has also confounded expectations. He bolstered Pakistan’s democracy by draining his own office of power. He became the country’s first elected president to complete his term of office. He shifted the tone of politics, eschewing bare-knuckles confrontation for a more accommodating approach.

And, perhaps thanks to the instincts that were honed during his 11 years in prison before becoming president, he displayed political wiles that enabled him to outmaneuver the steeliest rivals, and simply survive.

“Love him or hate him, one can never underestimate President Zardari,” wrote Kamal Siddiqi, editor of the daily newspaper The Express Tribune.

Mr. Zardari’s departure from office comes at the midpoint of a broader changing of the guard this year in the top echelons of Pakistan’s turbulent power structures. In June, his longtime political rival, Nawaz Sharif, became prime minister after a sweeping election victory. In November, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is due to step down; weeks later, the formidable chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, is to be replaced.

“This is an era of great change,” said Adil Najam, a professor of international relations at Boston University. “Zardari’s achievement is to walk away from high power with a smile on his face — not going out in a coffin, or in handcuffs, or in disgrace.”

For long, though, he struggled to achieve political legitimacy.

2008: assumes office amidst bloodshed

Catapulted into office in 2008 by the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, Mr. Zardari arrived already burdened by a reputation for graft. Not only did the military dislike him, but he was also viewed with suspicion by many supporters of his own party as the accidental inheritor of a storied political dynasty.

After early efforts to assert his authority in the face of the military abjectly failed, he largely receded from public view. Much of that was due to security concerns, as a fierce Taliban bombing offensive struck major cities, killing thousands. He often remained cloistered in Islamabad, worried about his security, occasionally darting to the airport for state trips abroad, or to his second home in Dubai.

He displayed a leaden sensibility toward public opinion — for instance, continuing a vacation at his parents’ estate in France in August 2010 as huge floods inundated the country and drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Those mistakes were seized upon by the increasingly influential electronic media, which treated Mr. Zardari with hostility and, for a time, regularly predicted his downfall. He was openly mocked, and his personal life attacked with insinuations. Some Pakistanis still believe that Mr. Zardari engineered his own wife’s death as part of a macabre power grab.

Yet Mr. Zardari often turned the other cheek, keeping up a Cheshire cat grin while he pursued a calculated and patient approach as his opponents overstepped themselves.

2012: court battle with Justice Chaudhry

In 2012, he slogged through a protracted court battle with Justice Chaudhry, who pushed to reopen a corruption case against Mr. Zardari that dated to the 1990s. Mr. Zardari and his lawyers fought back adroitly, eventually sidestepping the charges. But in the process, he had to sacrifice his chosen prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, who was forced to resign by court order in June 2012.

Often as not, brinkmanship and back-room deals were Mr. Zardari’s style. Yet along the way, he also introduced key constitutional changes that anchored the country’s fragile democratic foundations. He surrendered the main power of his own office — the ability to dismiss Parliament — and turned it into a ceremonial position.

That he got so far could be seen as a minor miracle. During a political crisis in 2009, General Kayani discussed the possibility of a military takeover, according to American diplomatic cables later published by WikiLeaks. Around the same time, Mr. Zardari told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. he worried that General Kayani and the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate were plotting to “take me out,” according to another leaked cable.

Political normalcy, decline in military’s prestige

In private meetings, according to a confidant who met with him regularly, Mr. Zardari indicated that he believed his conversations were being monitored, and would tap two fingers on his shoulder to indicate he was talking about the military.

But the Pakistan military’s prestige has also suffered blows in recent years, particularly after the American commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. A charged political scandal blew up months later when Mr. Zardari faced accusations of secretly siding with the United States amid fears of a military coup.

But the drama later fizzled, suggesting new limits to military meddling in politics.

If his constant maneuvering succeeded in yielding Mr. Zardari political and judicial victories, however, it failed to address some of Pakistan’s most profound troubles.

The economy has nose-dived and foreign exchange reserves have shrunk in recent years, leading the International Monetary Fund to approve a $6.6 billion emergency loan on Wednesday — on top of $5 billion that Pakistan already owes the international body.

Further harming the economy, systemic power shortages reached crisis proportions this summer, with even major cities experiencing long hours of electricity rationing. Only 1 percent of Pakistanis pay income tax.

Mr. Zardari habitually chose ministers on the basis of loyalty rather than ability. And although he frequently railed against the menace posed by Islamist militants, his government failed to stem the tide of Taliban violence.

Indeed, his party kowtowed to the religious right, particularly in the poisonous debate over Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. And attempts to broker peace in western Baluchistan Province, where a bitter nationalist insurgency has been raging, failed badly.

In 2013, however, as it became clear he would see out the end of his term, some of the public venom toward Mr. Zardari appeared to have dissipated.

“There is a sense that political normalcy is starting to set in,” said Professor Najam, while cautioning that it was too early to say if civilian supremacy would last. “We’ve been here before, in the 1990s,” he said. “And then things bounce back.”

In Sept 2013, the new president, Mamnoon Hussain of Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, was sworn in.

Mr. Zardari, meanwhile, may still have to fend off threats from his old rival, Justice Chaudhry.

Of the failures attributed to Mr. Zardari, perhaps the most striking concerns the event that propelled him to power.

Six years after his wife was killed in a gun and bomb attack, the identity of the forces behind the assassination remains a mystery. Some Bhutto supporters believe the military played a role; the matter is still in court.

But the fact that Mr. Zardari failed to unearth the truth offers another telling indicator of the limits of civilian authority in Pakistan’s fluctuating power equation.

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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