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Who Is Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's Likely Next President?

  • Abubakar Siddique

Asif Ali Zardari in front of a portrait of his slain wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Asif Ali Zardari, the reported winner of Pakistan's indirect presidential election, is attacked by critics as corrupt but praised by supporters for leading the party of his assassinated wife to victory earlier this year.

Zardari was born into a landowning business family in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh 52 years ago. He attended a Catholic missionary school in Karachi and later went to London for his college education, though it's not clear whether he completed his studies.

His 1987 marriage to Benazir Bhutto was a life-changing experience for the then-31-year-old polo player, famous for his penchant for horses. Bhutto was then the main opposition figure to General Zia-ul-Haq's government and successor of her late father, the populist former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged by Haq in 1979.

An air crash in 1988 killed Haq and Bhutto won the subsequent elections, becoming the first female prime minister of a Muslim country. But her 20-month first stint in power ended in 1990 when then-President Ishaq Khan dismissed her government and imprisoned Zardari on corruption charges.

Zardari was later released and made environment minister in 1993 after Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won the parliamentary elections once again and she became prime minister. But her hand-picked president, Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari, once again dismissed her government in 1996.

'Mr. 10 Percent'

The following year, Zardari, by now nicknamed "Mr. 10 Percent," was again arrested on corruption charges. He was also accused of being involved in the murder of Mir Murtaza Bhutto, Zardari's brother-in-law and political opponent.

He spent the next eight years in prison facing dozens of charges, but was never convicted and was finally released on bail in 2004. His opponents still accuse him of being corrupt and incompetent. Mushahid Hussain Sayed, who is running against Zardari in the indirect presidential elections, tells RFE/RL that Zardari might not even be fit to hold the presidential office.

Sayed says that following media reports of "$60 million in Swiss funds" and questions about his mental health, "you need somebody as a supreme commander of the armed forces and chairman of the National Command Authority [the Pakistani government agency in charge of nuclear weapons], who is mentally stable to hold this high office. I think there are a lot of questions about his character and about his state of mind."

But Zardari's friends and supporters reject such allegations. Senator Mohammad Envar Baig, a senior PPP leader and a friend of Zardari, says that following the assassination of his wife last December, Zardari showed tremendous political acumen by holding together their party and steering it to electoral victory.

"He understands the issues instantly. [He] understands what the problems are. And he is a person who would fix up things very quickly. He is a person who does not linger on with decisions and he makes decisions," Baig says.

"I think that is a good quality of any leader. That is the need of the hour because we have enormous problems in Pakistan. Particularly, [the] war on terror, the economic situation, and the political instability."

Still Far To Go

But others complain that Zardari has so far failed to fulfill many of his promises.

Latif Afridi is a Pashtun nationalist politician and a leader of the lawyer movement, which is demanding the reinstatement of dozens of senior judges, including former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Chaudhry was fired by Pervez Musharraf last November after the former president declared a state of emergency.

Afridi praised Zardari for being steadfast in difficult circumstances, but says that his inability and reneging on his promises to reinstate the judges raise doubts about his credibility.

"If you look at the way he broke the numerous promises that he made to the nation and the world over the past months that he will reinstate the judges, then you cannot attach any high hopes to him," Afridi says. "One can say that he practices the politics of expediency. And this is a very worrying aspect of his personality."

Meanwhile, Shahed Sadullah, a newspaper editor and London-based Pakistan analyst, says that the PPP-led government has been "very robust" in its execution of the war on terror, which is likely to endear Zardari to the West.

"The one thing that all Western governments and political leaders look for in Pakistan is support in the war on terror," Sadullah says. "And Mr. Zardari has already been quite unequivocal in announcing that support. So to that extent he will be very acceptable to the West."

Zardari has a long journey ahead to improve his image as a national leader who can deliver under tremendous pressure. It's an uphill climb, however, as public and media opinion already appear stacked against him.