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Old Friday, September 05, 2008
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Default Zardari Set to Assume Pakistan's Presidency

Zardari Set to Assume Pakistan's Presidency

September 5, 2008

KARACHI, Pakistan -- Asif Ali Zardari is known as a polo-loving playboy who tainted the governments of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, with corruption scandals that landed him in jail. Saturday, he is likely to become president of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state sliding deeper into turmoil.

Mr. Zardari's unusual path to the presidency follows the assassination of Ms. Bhutto last December and the ouster of President Pervez Musharraf in August. In a matter of months, Mr. Zardari has emerged as a sort of accidental leader of a party that had long revolved around his wife. It now must embrace him, in spite of his past, and sell Mr. Zardari's presidency to the people of Pakistan and the outside world.

The election comes amid heightened tensions with the U.S., Pakistan's largest foreign donor. On Thursday, Pakistan accused U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan of leading a cross-border raid into a Pakistani village that killed 20 people, including women and children. In a sign of rising anti-American anger, the Parliament passed resolutions Thursday condemning the attack and the government summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest. A senior U.S. military official confirmed the raid but provided no details on the target or any Pakistani casualties.

To critics, Mr. Zardari's personal history makes him ill-equipped to pull the country together in a time of crisis. "These people who have captured political power aren't really interested in good governance," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, adding that the country needs to move away from its old political guard.

To supporters, the 53-year-old Mr. Zardari has emerged from his dark past, including 11 years in prison, as a resilient leader, capable of steering Pakistan through one of the most turbulent periods in its 61-year history as an independent nation.

"He's suffered and he's grown," says Agha Sieraaj Khan Durrani, who shared a jail cell with Mr. Zardari, and is now a minister in the government of the southeast province of Sindh, the heartland of the Bhutto political base. "He's become a perfect politician. Give us a chance to deliver."

Mr. Zardari is expected to secure a comfortable victory in Saturday's presidential election from Pakistani lawmakers who vote in an electoral college. (There is no general election.) The other candidates are a retired judge, Saeeduz Zaman Siddique, and Mushahid Hussain, a leader of a party that supported Mr. Musharraf.

Election to the presidency, though, isn't likely to put to rest concerns about his record. Although he has never been convicted of a crime, Mr. Zardari has faced a number of charges in the past, including corruption and conspiracy to murder. Swiss investigators also were pursuing a money-laundering probe until Pakistani authorities recently asked them to drop the case. Late last year, he was given amnesty in a deal with Mr. Musharraf that allowed him and his wife to return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile last year.

There have also been questions over whether his academic credentials qualified him to be president. The issue became moot in April when Pakistan's Supreme Court struck down a law that required parliamentary and presidential candidates to have university degrees.

Mr. Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said Mr. Zardari wasn't available for an interview before the election. Mr. Babar asserted that the criticisms of Mr. Zardari "must be part of the media smear campaign," adding that the party leader hasn't been convicted of any charges.

Wide-Ranging Powers

As president, Mr. Zardari will command the military, which oversees the nation's nuclear arsenal. Under Pakistan's constitution, the president also may dismiss the Parliament -- something the prime minister can only advise the president to do. He could enjoy a strong mandate as long as his Pakistan People's Party retains its role as the senior partner in Pakistan's ruling coalition. Even though he currently holds no elective office, Mr. Zardari since his wife's death has been the party's leader and chief strategist behind the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Mr. Zardari will assume these political powers as Pakistan confronts an extraordinary range of challenges. Economic unrest has undercut public confidence in the government. Food and fuel prices have soared, the rupee has weakened sharply against the dollar and investors have fled the country's stock market. Pakistan's foreign-exchange reserves have dwindled to about $9 billion, largely due to rising payments for oil imports.

Pakistan has been in talks with Saudi Arabia to defer or forgive about $6 billion in oil debts, but no agreement has been announced. In a research note published earlier this week, Citigroup urged Pakistan to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund to avoid defaulting on its sovereign debt.

A spokesman for the finance ministry, Ashfaque Hasan Khan, says the government is not seeking financial assistance from the IMF, but said a team from the fund would be arriving in the country next Friday to consult on a "road map" for addressing Pakistan's economic problems.

Policy Prescription

As the economy has slowed, Mr. Zardari and the government have struggled to find policy prescriptions for the nation's ills. One initiative: a plan to set aside 50 billion rupees ($652 million) for cash handouts to alleviate the pain of rising food prices. Yet the government must also watch its ballooning debt.

Mr. Zardari and the government are groping for a cohesive policy to combat Islamist militants. Their approach in the past several months has alternated between aggressive military action and piecemeal deals negotiated with militant leaders. The U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which are fighting a war in neighboring Afghanistan, have called on Mr. Zardari to do more to curb the militancy. The Pakistani leader has said he is committed to doing so, but says the U.S. pressure threatens to undercut popular support. "The fight for terrorism is our fight," said Mr. Zardari through his spokesman, Mr. Babar. "It's our job and we will do it."

On Thursday, the Pakistani army said it killed 17 suspected militants as helicopter gunships fired on hideouts in the Swat Valley of Northwest Frontier Province, an area that was supposed to have been protected by a government peace deal.

'Ms. Bhutto's Husband'

For some who knew Mr. Zardari as a young man, his ascent to power in Pakistan has come as a surprise. "He seemed more interested in getting a girl and enjoying his life," says Rasool Baksh Palijo, who headed a socialist party that worked with Mr. Zardari's father, Hakim Ali Zardari, also a politician. "Everybody assumed his greatest achievement was being Ms. Bhutto's husband."

In his hometown of Karachi, Pakistan's commercial center and largest city, Mr. Zardari earned a youthful reputation as a rabble-rouser. He developed a passion for polo -- and broke several bones while playing it -- and an enthusiasm for boxing. Some fights among Mr. Zardari's friends spilled outside the ring to restaurants and clubs, says Dr. Zulfiqar Mirza, the interior minister of Sindh and a childhood friend of Mr. Zardari's. "We were very naughty," he says. "You can say, naughtier than others."

Mr. Zardari's political wiles also were evident early. The most obvious sign was his proclivity to woo friends with favors and gifts, according to Mr. Durrani, the government minister. For example, Mr. Zardari's father, who owned a famous movie theater in Karachi called the Bambino, donated movie equipment to the school. Mr. Zardari's classmates were able to watch "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Ben-Hur," says Dr. Mirza. Friends learned to drive by borrowing the Zardari family Mercedes.

Mr. Zardari didn't distinguish himself as a student, however, and his academic background remains a question. In his official biography, posted on the Web site of the Pakistan People's Party, Mr. Zardari is listed as graduating from Cadet College Petaro -- the equivalent of a high school -- in Dadu outside Karachi in 1972, at the age of 17.

Mr. Durrani says Mr. Zardari went on to attend St. Patrick's College, a venerable Catholic secondary school in Karachi whose former students include Mr. Musharraf and former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

According to a St. Patrick's registration clerk, who was authorized to speak by the school's vice principal, Mr. Zardari attended the school in 1973 and 1974. But he flunked his final examination, the clerk, who identified himself as Umair, said in a telephone interview. Such a result typically precludes students from being admitted to university in Pakistan. Mr. Zardari's spokesman, Mr. Babar, declined to provide any more information than is listed on the official biography.

In 1976, his biography says, Mr. Zardari completed his study in London in business and economics at a place called the Pedinton School. The school couldn't be located.

Local Elections

Mr. Zardari's early forays into politics were unsuccessful. In 1983, he ran for a seat on the district council in his ancestral home of Nawabshah, a city north of Karachi where his family owned thousands of acres of farmland. He lost the election, according to Mr. Durrani, the Sindh minister who now oversees local governments.

Mr. Zardari turned his sight to building a real-estate business and to pursuing a woman he had never met: Ms. Bhutto.

Though they were both brought up in Karachi, they inhabited different worlds. Ms. Bhutto was the daughter of a popular prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was later jailed and hanged after a military coup. She graduated from Harvard and Oxford and then spent years in jail opposing the military regime of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. After her father's death, she ran the Pakistan People's Party, the main opposition to the military government.

In conversations with friends, Mr. Zardari vowed months before their engagement that he would marry Ms. Bhutto, a boast that at the time brought guffaws, according to Dr. Mirza. They later learned of Mr. Zardari's engagement in London from a radio report.

In her autobiography, Ms. Bhutto says she and her family were typically able to deter suitors with delay tactics until "the other person either lost interest or thought we were not interested," she wrote. "But not the Zardaris." They wed in 1987. She was 34; he, two years younger.

In 1988, Gen. Zia was killed in a plane crash and a few months later Ms. Bhutto became Pakistan's first female prime minister.

Mr. Zardari stayed out of his wife's first administration, but he and his associates became tangled in corruption cases linked to the government. One was an alleged extortion scheme that involved tying a supposed bomb to a British businessman's leg.

Mr. Durrani, who says he was also charged in the alleged bomb plot, says these and other government cases reflected attempts to attack Ms. Bhutto through her husband. The government that succeeded Ms. Bhutto's put Mr. Zardari behind bars. The charges were later dropped.

Ms. Bhutto was re-elected prime minister for another term in 1993 and Mr. Zardari took up ministerial positions in her government. He was credited with promoting private investment in Pakistan, but he also was tagged with the nickname Mr. Ten Percent for alleged kickbacks on government-linked projects, though he was never convicted of a crime.

In 1996, Ms. Bhutto was voted out of office, replaced by the leader of the opposition, Nawaz Sharif. Mr. Zardari went back to jail, arrested for allegedly ordering the killing of Ms. Bhutto's estranged brother in a police shootout in Karachi. The Sindh High Court dismissed the charges earlier this year for lack evidence.

In prison, Mr. Zardari taught others how to pass time through prayers and reading, according to Mr. Durrani, who also went to jail after Mr. Musharraf overthrew Mr. Sharif in a military coup in 1999. "We say prison is like university -- you go and you learn," says Mr. Durrani, the government minister. "The biggest thing you learn is patience."

After he was released in late 2004 under the government of Mr. Musharraf, Mr. Zardari was allowed to go into exile overseas. He shifted between homes in New York, London and Dubai where his three children lived.

Failed Coalition

Late last year, Mr. Zardari returned to Pakistan. After his wife was assassinated, he assumed joint chairmanship of her political party along with his college-age son, Bilawal, who bears his mother's famous surname.

After democratic elections in February, the Pakistan People's Party entered into a coalition with the Pakistan Muslim League (N), headed by Mr. Sharif. Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif together forced the ouster of Mr. Musharraf by threatening him with impeachment charges. Mr. Zardari had worked behind the scenes to reassure Pakistan's jittery allies, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, that removing Mr. Musharraf wouldn't damage their ties with Pakistan, his close associates say.

Pakistan's army, which is the country's most powerful institution, stayed on the sidelines during the showdown, a sign many interpreted as good for fostering Pakistan's democratic progress. "The process is working," says a western diplomat in Pakistan. "It's messy but it's working."

But after Mr. Musharraf resigned, Mr. Zardari refused to restore a chief justice who presided over Pakistan's courts while he languished in jail. The subsequent showdown with Mr. Sharif prompted Mr. Sharif's party to bolt from the coalition. It now sits in the ranks of the opposition. The government was able to cobble together sufficient support from other parties to stay in power.

Now that Mr. Zardari is on the brink of becoming Pakistan's head of state, his supporters say he is motivated more by his ambition to serve Pakistan than revenge. "At least from our side, we are very clear: We want to forgive and forget," says Dr. Mirza. "It has to end somewhere."

--Shahid Shah and Neil Shah contributed to this article.

Source: The Wall Street Journal.
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