Pakistan: Bhutto's Shadow Lingers As Zardari Takes Reins of Power

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Pakistan: Bhutto's Shadow Lingers As Zardari Takes Reins of Power

Benazir's husband is voted in amid muted rejoicing, but army hostility and militant violence could threaten hopes for stability

by
Jason Burke

A supporter of the ruling Pakistan People's Party waves the party flag to celebrate the victory of Asif Ali Zardari in the presidential election outside the assembly building in Lahore. (Mohsin Raza / Reuters)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, will be sworn
in today as President of Pakistan, arguably the most powerful civilian
to take the office in the volatile, nuclear-armed state for more than
30 years.

Zardari takes power at a time of extreme instability,
with the strategically crucial state struggling to contain a growing
Islamic militant insurgency and deal with a crumbling economy. The
challenges facing the new head of state, who controversially looks set
to remain leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), were reinforced
yesterday by a blast in the western city of Peshawar, which killed 17
and injured scores more. In a separate incident, Pakistan's military
said 24 people were killed after residents of a village in the unruly
northwest foiled a militants' kidnap attempt, then were attacked.

The
53-year-old former businessman's election to the post - in an indirect
vote in Pakistan's two-chamber National Assembly and four provincial
parliaments - failed to fire enthusiasm among a disillusioned
population, though some PPP supporters danced in the streets yesterday.
Polls last week showed that 44 per cent of people rejected all three
candidates for the post.

The shadow of Bhutto, assassinated
last December shortly after her return from exile to Pakistan, was
evident everywhere. Pro-Zardari members of parliament, some in tears,
shouted 'Long live Bhutto!' as the results came in. The couple's two
jubilant but tearful daughters, one carrying a portrait of her mother,
smiled and hugged friends in the National Assembly's gallery. 'It is
the beginning of a new era of stability and prosperity for Pakistan,'
Javed Mir, the PPP information secretary, said.

However, there
are many misgivings within Pakistan and in the international community.
'The problem with Zardari is not that he is an unknown quantity, it is
that he is a known quantity,' said Dr Farzana Shaikh, of London's
Chatham House think-tank. Zardari has been hounded by corruption
allegations throughout his career, though he has no outstanding
convictions, and does not share the charisma or broad appeal of his
late wife. He is also seen as a relative political novice.

One
immediate worry for observers hoping for stability is Zardari's defeat
in the Punjab, Pakistan's richest and most populous province, where MPs
loyal to Nawaz Sharif, the conservative former Prime Minister and a
bitter rival of Zardari, are in a majority.

'We don't want any
conflict or instability between the Punjab and the national government
and will be working with Mr Sharif to avoid it,' said the PPP's Mir.

However,
relations between Zardari and Sharif, who has substantial popular
support, are poor, with a bitter and ongoing row over the reinstatement
of judges sacked by former President Pervez Musharraf last year.

Zardari
will inherit the wide-ranging powers assumed by former army general
Musharraf, who resigned when threatened with impeachment last month. He
will thus be able to dismiss parliament and appoint the chief of
Pakistan's armed forces, which traditionally see themselves as the
guarantors of the nuclear-armed nation's security and stability. Some
regard a confrontation as likely.

'For the moment Zardari can
count on the army taking a back seat, but it is no secret that he is
loathed by the military,' said Chatham House's Shaikh. 'The army has
historically allowed politicians to become so unpopular that when it
finally steps in there is a huge collective sigh of relief across the
country.' Zardari has gone out of his way recently to reassure a
worried Washington of his support in the 'war on terror'. Pressure has
been increasing on Pakistan in recent months to crack down on Taliban
militants based in the west of the country who cross the porous border
to fight in Afghanistan against Nato troops. Many believe that elements
within the Pakistani security establishment - especially the powerful
military intelligence services - are supporting factions within the
Taliban.

Last week the tension was raised by what appeared to be
the first cross-border raid into Pakistan by US troops based in
Afghanistan. Islamabad reacted angrily, claiming that 20 civilians had
been killed in the attack and its sovereignty violated. To show its
displeasure, it has blocked fuel supplies reaching the international
troops at border points on the route from the southern port of Karachi.
'We have told them that we will take action ... We have stopped the
supply of oil and this will tell how serious we are,' Defence Minister
Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar told a television channel.

However,
Pakistan receives about £60m in military aid each month from the US to
support operations against the militants and is reliant on
international aid to prop up its ailing economy, so the measures are
likely to be short-lived.

The election of Zardari has been
greeted warily across the region. In Kabul, officials insist that the
new President must rein in those elements they allege are supporting
the Taliban. 'That is what is poisoning our relationship,' said one.

In
India, the response has been more positive, although there are
considerable concerns over the 'structural limitations' on any civilian
Pakistani government's power.

'Zardari is not military nor is
he part of the Punjabi elite, and his statements about India so far
have been realistic and positive, especially his focus on economic
co-operation,' said Professor G. Parthasarathy, of the Centre for
Policy Research in New Delhi. 'However, we have to be realistic about
his freedom of action.'

Brigadier Arun Sahgal, of the Institute
of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, pointed out that recent
violence in Kashmir, where Indian security forces killed local Muslim
demonstrators, had not been exploited by Pakistan. 'That sent a good
message,' he said.

'The Indian position, like that of the US
and the Europeans, is that we want the stabilisation of political
forces in Pakistan,' the brigadier added.

Most diplomats
privately admit that working with Zardari is very much 'plan B'. London
and Washington both prefer the pro-Western, secular widower of Bhutto,
whom they hoped would become Prime Minister on returning last year, to
Sharif who, more politically and religiously conservative than his
rival, is seen as less likely to fight the militants. However, Sharif
better reflects the growing anti-American and anti-Western sentiment
among Pakistanis.

Zardari's life and times

· Born in 1955 in Nawabshah, Sindh

· Married Benazir Bhutto in 1987

· Bhutto elected Prime Minister 1988

· Zardari imprisoned for blackmail in 1990. Released in 1993. Jailed again for graft in 1997 and released in 2004

· He and Bhutto went into self-imposed exile in 1999, which they spent in Washington, London and Dubai

· Returned to Pakistan with Bhutto in October 2007

· Co-chairmanship of the Pakistan People's Party after Bhutto's assassination on 27 December, 2007

· Won majority in the elections of February 2008

· Last corruption case against him dropped in July this year

· Became President of Pakistan, 6 September, 2008

Share This Article

More in: