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Zardari Set To Become Pakistan's President -- But For How Long?

Asif Ali Zardari
Asif Ali Zardari
The members of the Pakistan National Assembly, Senate, and four provisional assemblies are due to elect the country's next president on September 6. Three political parties have each nominated their own candidate, but there is little doubt that Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the husband of slain former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Butto, will win the ballot.

Zardari's nomination is also supported by some minor political and religious parties. Despite the recent split among coalition partners, Zardari can be certain of a swift victory. Proceeding from that assumption, political pundits are focusing more what is likely to happen during Zardari's presidency and on his ability to handle major problems ranging from the weakening economy, to political clashes, as well as a mounting insurgency.

Little Experience

The 52-year old Zardari is a controversial figure, having spent almost 11 years in jail under accusation of corruption and mismanagement of state funds. He has very little experience, if any, in a political post. The Western press has also recently questioned his mental stability.

Following the assassination of his wife, Benazir Butto, in December 2007, Zardari emerged as a talented political manager who led his party to victory in the parliamentary elections held on February 18, 2008 and forged a coalition partnership between the PPP and its historic rival, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

As a result, today the PPP not only holds the post of prime minister, but also controls two provisional assemblies and has partnerships in the remaining two provincial governments. It also looks set to win the battle to appoint PPP-friendly judges and sideline those who are favored by Mr. Sharif.

At least in the short term, it seems that the PPP has no reason to worry, but sharing power with many political parties has always proved problematic in Pakistani politics, and this government is no exception.

Problems In The Provinces

There are two main points of concern: first, if Zardari is indeed elected president, it will be largely as a result of the support in all the legislatures of the religious party Jamiyat Ulema Islam-F (JUI-F), the Pashtun Nationalist Party, the Awami National Party (ANP) from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and independently elected members of parliament from different region including tribal areas.

All of them laid down their own conditions before pledging their support for Zardari. Independents from the tribal regions and members of the JUI-F agreed to back him only after the government accepted their demand to halt military operations in the tribal regions. But faced with mounting pressure by the insurgents, how long can the government keep that promise not to re-launch military operations against militants who on September 3, just three days after the ceasefire took effect, attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gilani?

The ANP similarly demanded from Zardari in return for supporting him a promise by the government to rename the province the NWFP as a Pakhtun-Khuwa (land of Pashtuns). This demand, which dates back almost 50 years, was ignored by previous governments so as not to exacerbate the division of the country on ethnic lines. Whether the government fulfills this promise remains to be seen, as there are already separatist movements active in many parts of Pakistan that pose a serious threat to the country's unity.

The second major concern is the possibility of a revival of the old political rivalry between the PPP and the PML-N following the PML-N's decision to withdraw from the coalition government.

The PML-N is fielding its own presidential candidate former judge, Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, even though he has little chance of winning. They hope nonetheless to secure the support of former PML-N members who established their own political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), after Sharif's government was toppled by former President Perwez Musharraf in 1999.

Despite those overtures from the PML-N, the PML-Q too has its own presidential candidate, but the participation of both parties independently appears little more than a formality and a prelude for the expected political battle ahead. The power base of both parties is primarily in the Punjab province, and their members are overwhelmingly Punjabi. So even if they could not agree on a single candidate prior to the election date, there is a compelling reason to believe that they will soon set aside their differences.

In this situation, these two parties could emerge as a strong opposition bloc that could overthrow the government if even a minor split emerged between the PPP and its remaining coalition partners. That would lead to a repeat of the political turmoil of the late 1980s and 1990s, when the government changed every year or two.

In addition to their diverging political views, other critical issues, such as strategy on how to tackle the insurgency, the weakening economy, food shortages, power cuts, and unemployment could easily cause tensions among the parties who today supports Zardari. And failure by the fragile PPP-led government to fulfill its promises would give the opposition a reason to seek to mobilize public support against it.

Muhammad Tahir, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, was a correspondent for the Turkish Television News Agency (IHA) in South Asia from 1999 to 2002