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Wide Majority Elects Zardari Pakistan's New President

Zardari (left) with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani after Zardari's election as president
Pakistani lawmakers have elected Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as the country's new president.

Zardari, who heads the Pakistan People's Party, secured 482 votes out of a total of 702 votes cast in Pakistan's bicameral central parliament and the four provincial assemblies.

His opponents, Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML N), and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, split the remaining votes.

Zardari swept the presidential poll in the three smaller provinces of Sindh, Baluchistan, and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). In his native Sindh, he emerged as a consensus candidate by getting all the votes polled.

In Islamabad, Qazi Muhammad Farooq, head of the Pakistan Election Commission, announced the results from the two houses of the central parliament before enthusiastic Zardari supporters.

Zardari's weakest support came from Pakistan's most-populous province, Punjab. He secured just 22 electoral votes out of total of 65. Analyst say the province has already turned into a battleground between the governing PPP and its erstwhile ally the PML-N.

The PPP is currently a junior coalition partner in the provincial government. But analysts expect it to attempt to form its own government by co-opting smaller parties and independents.

Zardari was little known outside Pakistan before December's assassination of his charismatic wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

He spent 11 years in prison, on charges ranging from corruption to murder conspiracy. He was known as "Mr. Ten Percent" by his opponents who accused him of financial machinations during his wife's time in power.

But his guilt was never proven in court.

Zardari's supporters maintain that the cases against him were part of a politically motivated campaign to blacken his name. His supporters credit him with holding the party together and steering it to election victory in the wake of his wife’s assassination.

"We have come out to change the [political] system," Zardari announced in one of his first appearances after national parliamentary elections on February 18.*

Zardari's supporters credit him with ousting former military strongman President Pervez Musharraf, who resigned on August 18.

In the past nine months, Zardari has worked to transform his image from a flamboyant former businessman to an astute leader seeking democracy in his country.

"Don't be afraid of [antidemocracy forces]," Zardari told a rally after his party's strong showing in February. "If you get scared of them today, tomorrow’s generations will never pardon us. Tomorrow, history will not spare us [for our neglect]."

Shahed Sadullah, a London-based newspaper editor and Pakistan analyst, told RFE/RL that Zardari is well aware that tackling Pakistan's complex terrorism problem is his primary challenge.

"In a poor country, which has a per capita income of barely $1,000 per person, everything is a challenge," Sadullah said. "Provision of clear, potable, drinking water is a challenge; primary education is a challenge. And, therefore, the problems are numerous. But I think, first of all what he has to do is to get a grip on the terrorism and religious extremism situation and then move on from there and see if he can make any positive impact on the economy."

Just as the lawmakers in the NWFP's capital, Peshawar, were casting their ballots in the presidential vote, an apparent suicide car bomb attack killed at least 13 people and injured many at a checkpoint on the city's outskirts.

The bombing was the latest reminder of the formidable challenge that faces the president-elect and the central Pakistani government.

[* Due to an editing mistake, this piece erroneously suggested when it was first posted that this remark came after the September 6 election.]
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. ​