Event ReportsPublished on Sep 09, 2008
Asif Ali Zardari, 53, the 12th President of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, is not new to politics, nor is he to the Machiavellian twists and turns necessary to survive in the intensely fratricidal politics of Pakistan where the final shots are called by the Chief of Army Staff.
President Asif Ali Zardari: Can he measure up to the challenges?
Asif Ali Zardari, 53, the 12th President of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, is not new to politics, nor is he to the Machiavellian twists and turns necessary to survive in the intensely fratricidal politics of Pakistan where the final shots are called by the Chief of Army Staff. The dexterity and craftiness with which Zardari marginalised his main political rival, Nawaz Sharif, without losing the grip over the fledgling coalition government, and then President Pervez Musharraf, without upsetting the Army, give credit to his innate political sense and ability. The recent, and past, events also portray a picture of a survivor. He has survived quite a few odds—living in the shadow of a more powerful and popular spouse, heaped with cases of corruption and murder, locked up in prison for years and suffering the brutal assassination of his wife just before she could have returned home with a political triumph. This instinct, and experience, of survival has left an indelible mark on Zardari’s life and activities, and will be a key to understanding his actions and policies as the President. Zardari is undoubtedly pitted against some of the most pressing problems Pakistan has faced since its creation six decades ago, and he will need more than his survival instinct to pull him through. For a change, he has to keep personal ambition and survival aside in the larger interest of Pakistan. He has to act more as a leader of the people rather than as a master of a sinking ship or a tight-fisted feudal patriarch. He will have to balance his survival, which is going to be an equally daunting task, with that of Pakistan which is fast sinking into an economic and political quagmire. His most immediate, and recurring, challenge would be how to deal with Pakistan Army, or perhaps, how the Army would deal with him in the next few months. Time is of great essence in Pakistan; economic crisis and terrorism need urgent attention and further delays in addressing these fundamental issues would pose grave threats to Pakistan’s existence as a nation. Zardari, therefore, does not have time on his hands. Nor does he have enough experience in handling the Army except to facilitate the Musharraf-Benazir Bhutto negotiations in the recent past. A closer look at the Zardari-Army relationship, however, indicates a gritty road ahead. First is the traditional animus between Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Army. PPP is one of the few political parties in Pakistan which is not created by the Army-ISI combine. In fact, it is the only major political party which has challenged the Army’s hegemonic tendencies. PPP founder ZA Bhutto in fact was pursuing the idea of bringing the military under the civilian authority as part of a Higher Defence Organisation when he was imprisoned and hanged on flimsy charges of a political murder by his Army chief, Zia-ul Haq. In 1990, so deep was the distrust between the Army and PPP that the former cobbled together a coalition of Punjabi politicians and the religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)-- Islami Jamhuri Ittihad—under a novice leader, Nawaz Sharif to neutralise PPP’s political support in Punjab and prevent Benazir Bhutto from becoming the Prime Minister. Though Benazir became Prime Minister twice, the Army saw to it that the Prime Minister remained embroiled in charges of corruption and was kept out of military matters. General Musharraf’s refusal to let Benazir (and Nawaz) return to Pakistan only added to the embitterment. Benazir’s attitude towards the Army was clearly reflected in the Charter of Democracy which she signed in London with Nawaz Sharif as a brave attempt to present a joint political front against Musharraf. The charter included the proposal to bring the military under the civilian authority. Though the Benazir-Nawaz alliance was still-born, the US persuaded Musharraf to open negotiations with the PPP leader for a political arrangement which, according to the script, had Musharraf as the President and Benazir as the Prime Minister. The script, however, went awry when unknown assailants killed Benazir in December last, catapulting an unknown Zardari to the centre-stage of Pakistani politics. Zardari therefore cannot be ignorant of the stranglehold of Pakistan Army over the country. His two actions, immediately after the February election results which brought his party to Islamabad after almost a decade of obscurity, however, belied the conventional wisdom. Zardari’s declaration that Kashmir could be kept on the back burner evoked an alarming response within Pakistan, especially from the Army, forcing the former to backtrack in haste. More disastrous had been his attempts to rein in ISI. Both the incidents showed a natural distrust for the Army-ISI combine, and the ground reality in Pakistan. The moot question is how much, and how long, will Zardari, a civilian President after all, be able to play poker with the Army. There are quite a few important points on which some games could falter. First is the status of the President as the head of the National Command Authority and the National Security Council, the key decision making bodies on the nuclear weapons programme and deployment. Will the army let the civilian President control the critical assets? Will Zardari let the control slip from him and therefore dilute the primacy and power of Presidentship which Musharraf had assiduously built to consolidate his hold over Pakistan? Second is how is the War on Terror going to play out in the tribal areas in the days ahead, particularly when the situation has become more complex with the US troops targeting civilians and properties inside Pakistan during the Ramzan period. The Army has different compulsions in the area and would like Zardari to go along, and not create hurdles. It is certainly a complex situation with the US keen on pursuing its anti-terror agenda a little more aggressively and the Army refusing to let go of its Taliban strategy, leaving the space open for a compromise. Since Pakistan is heavily dependent on the US military and financial aid, neither Zardari nor the Army Chief, Pervez Kayani, can afford to undo the knot which Musharraf had tied so tightly with the US. The US has to strike a balance between tactical and  strategic benefits, forsaking the former for the latter if the growing opposition to its military actions in the tribal areas pushes Pakistan into a deeper crisis, leaving the terrorist groups to consolidate their position. It is a Catch 22 situation, quite similar to the post-September 11 situation, which Musharraf exploited it with abundance for his own, and his country’s survival. Since, in the present circumstances, the President and the Chief of Army Staff are two entities, it would call for an uncharacteristic unity of mind and action between Kayani and Zardari to achieve such an objective. There is one another ground on which both the President and the Army Chief can meet: Kashmir. Kayani has followed quite diligently the Army’s policy of using the jehadi option in Kashmir, and has not indicated otherwise after taking over as the chief last November. Although Zardari personally has not shown any signs of being a Kashmir-centric Pakistani politician,  he could exploit this blindside to shore up support for him within the Army, a critical constituency for any Prime Minister or President to survive. This could mean a Zardari-Kayani understanding on how to create a groundswell within Kashmir against India and abandon the progress made during the India-Pakistan peace process. On the ground, this could translate as increase in infiltration of terrorists into India, more freedom for anti-India terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammand (JeM) to operate in Pak Occupied Kashmir and other areas. Profile Asif Ali Zardari was born on July 21, 1955 to a prominent family in Karachi. His father Hakim Ali Zardari, besides being the chief of the Baloch Zardari tribe, is a veteran Awami National Party politician. He was brought up in a life of affluence in Karachi, before marrying Benazir Bhutto in December 1987. Between 1988 and 1996, Zardari played a key if often behind the scenes role during the premiership of Benazir Bhutto; and became a victim of a fierce revenge campaign during Nawaz Sharif’s stay in Islamabad. Zardari served as a Member of the National Assembly twice (1990-1993 and 1993-1996) and was appointed the Federal Minister for Environment as well as Minister for Investment during that period. His close association with government matters and the alleged kickbacks that he is said to have received in many deals made him notoriously infamous as ‘Mr. 10%’ with more than a dozen criminal charges put against him. Political analysts saw him increasingly as a liability for his wife, and PPP. Amidst all this hue and cry, Zardari was quietly honing his political skills that have been all too evident in recent weeks. Besides his formal appointments, Zardari set up shop in Lahore to restore the state of affairs of PPP in the traditional PML stronghold. He also became a contact between the business community and the government during Bhutto’s ambitious drive to revamp the fledging economy. Zardari has spent almost 11 years in prison for charges ranging from corruption to murder, in spite of not being convicted in any of them. In 1990 he was charged with plotting the attack on an MQM camp which resulted in the death of Syed Adnan Haider and with robbery and vandalism. He was also accused of tying a remote controlled bomb to the leg of UK based tycoon Murtaza Bukhari and trying to extort money. Pakistani and western investigators accuse Zardari of embezzling as much as $1.5 billion from government accounts. After serving as an MNA for three years between 1993 and 96, Zardari was charged with the murder of Murtaza Bhutto and imprisoned under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance. He continued to be in jail without being convicted till 2004. In 1997 he was nominated to the Senate from Sindh. It is during this period that Zardari claims to have been a victim of sustained torture and mistreatment. As a result of the US scripted deal stuck between the PPP and Pervez Musharraf, Zardari was released in 2004. He immediately went to the US to connect with his family and to seek medical treatment. He is said to have been diagnosed with dementia, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder as well as spinal ailments, which his detractors suggest were excuses meant to avoid prosecution in corruption cases. Zardari remained politically inactive till the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. Bhutto, in her political will, had nominated him as the co-chairperson of PPP. The party under his leadership won a majority of seats in the February 18 elections, no doubt due to the  sympathy wave generated by Benazir’s death. Soon after the victory, he signed the famous Murree Declaration in March with Nawaz Sharif in which he agreed in letter to remove Musharraf from the seat of the President, to restore the disposed judges of the Supreme Court, and also not to unilaterally nominate a presidential candidate. However Mr. Zardari did not live upto his word and on August 23 nominated himself for the post of the President. Nawaz Sharif expectedly withdrew support from the government and threw the country into greater turmoil. All this, however did not come in the way of Mr. Zardari comfortably winning the September 6 presidential elections by a landslide margin. ---- Chronology
Born : July 26, 1955, Karachi
Schooling : Karachi Grammar School St. Patrick’s School, Karachi Cadet College Petaro
Marriage with Ms. Bhutto : December 1987
Imprisoned on charges of murder and embezzling government funds (without conviction) : 1990-1993
Elected as MNA : 1990-93 1993-96
Federal Minister for Environment : 1993-1996
Federal Minister for Investment : 1995-96
Imprisoned for his alleged role in the murder of Murtaza Bhutto : 1996-2004
Becomes a Senator from Karachi : 1997-1999
Released following the US scripted Bhutto-Musharraf deal, goes to US to seek medical treatment and meet family : 2004
Benazir Bhutto assassinated : 27th December 2007
Appointed as co-chairman of PPP : 30th December 2007
PPP Wins National Elections : 18th February 2008
Signs the Muree Declaration with PML(N) Nawaz Sharif : 9th March
Nominated for the post of President : 23rd August
Wins the Presidential Elections : 6th September
Takes over as the President : 9th September
  Report prepared by Wilson John, Senior Fellow, and Kaustav Chakrabarti, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.