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Pakistanis worry about Zardari rule

Asif Ali Zardari, widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and now the leader of her party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), is set to win a five-year term as president of Pakistan on Saturday.

Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images
Asif Ali Zardari at a press conference in Karachi.

The two other candidates from rival parties have been unable to seriously challenge him because the PPP enjoys a comfortable majority of seats in the national assembly and in three of the four provincial assemblies – these groups will choose, by secret ballot, a successor to President Pervez Musharraf, who resigned from office last month.

The election comes as Pakistan is reeling from an economy in chaos, crippling power outages, an Islamic insurgency moving out of the lawless border areas into the cities, and public outcry over Musharraf's sacking of judges who opposed him.

Balance of powers
Zardari's critics insist he has ascended to power only because of the death of his wife and has neither the governing skills nor the experience to pull the country out of its present crisis. His supporters strongly disagree, insisting he is the best man to bring peace and stability to Pakistan because of the powers he will inherit from the military regime of President Musharraf and his role as leader of the governing PPP party. 

Armed with such sweeping powers, Zardari would become one of the most powerful civilian presidents in Pakistan's history. He would  have the authority to dismiss the government, sack the army and intelligence chiefs, appoint judges and control Pakistan's nukes. But he insists he wants to devolve the powers of the presidency and return Pakistan to a parliamentary system of government after nine years of military dictatorship.

"If I am elected president," he wrote in anopinion piece in the Washington Post, "one of my highest priorities will be to support the prime minister, the National Assembly and the Senate to amend the constitution to bring back into balance the powers of the presidency and thereby reduce its ability to bring down democratic governance."

Three of the judges that Musharraf deposed were re-appointed to their old jobs today. But the PPP-led government did not restore the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, deepening a rift with Zardari's political opponents.

Throughout Pakistan's history, power has always been concentrated in one man. Many Pakistanis worry that the country is just changing from a military dictatorship to a civilian one.

Pakistan's Information Minister Sherry Rehman said Zardari believes in the balance of power between the president and the prime minister.

"Mr Zardari is a political figure who has stakes in the stability of the system," she said. "The decade of manipulation of the Presidency has tilted the balance of power away from parliamentary forces. The system could only be corrected by individuals and institutions that have respect for the will of the people."

Dogged by his past
If Saturday's vote for the presidency was a popular ballot, rather than a vote in the assemblies, Zardari likely would have a tougher time securing the country's top job. He lacks credibility among many Pakistanis and is dogged by his past -- alleged corruption and money laundering charges amounting to millions of dollars in kickbacks from foreign companies during his wife's two terms in office, and for which he spent a total of 11 years  in prison. 

Widely known as "Mr. 10 percent" for alleged skimming of government contracts, Zardari at one time faced charges in Pakistan, the U.K. and Switzerland. He maintains the charges were all politically motivated and never proven.

All charges against Zardari and Bhutto were dropped last year as part of a U.S.-brokered deal with President Musharraf, which paved the way for Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile. That amnesty, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, is controversial and unpopular in Pakistan and allegedly the reason Zardari has gone back on his promise to restore the independent-minded judges. The restoration of the deposed chief justice would likely see the case against Zardari brought up again and the amnesty thrown out.

Zardari refuses to answer questions from political opponents who wonder how he acquired his vast fortunes given that he does not come from great wealth. Last week, London's Financial Times newspaper reported that Zardari had presented medical certificates to the English High Court as recently as last year stating he was suffering from severe psychiatric problems, including dementia. It is widely held that these medical statements were falsified to postpone Zardari's cases before the courts. If this were to be true, then he would have committed perjury.

"We cannot trust a President who is a liar and who does not honor his promises. Before he was Mr. 10 percent. Now he will become Mr. 100 percent and, who knows, next he may sell the country," said Muhammed Iqbal Tanoli, an Islamabad lawyer who took part yesterday in a sit-in by the country's lawyers in front of the parliament demanding Zardari restore the judiciary.

How can a person become president who does not fulfill his promises nor stand by his agreements?" asked Saqib Abbasi, a student leader at Islamabad College for Boys. Students and the civil society have joined the nationwide lawyers movement protesting the delay in restoring the deposed judges.

Ayaz Amir, a political analyst, said much more than Zardari's personal credibility is at stake in Saturday's vote. "Mr. Asif Ali Zardari will have to play a very balanced role to ensure political stability. Failure to do so will be a disaster for the whole system," he said.

'Zardari has a shot'
Despite this concerns, today's lead article in the English language daily, The Nation, argues that Zardari has a shot at becoming a legitimate leader: "Mr. Zardari's obvious handicap could also prove a window of opportunity for him. He can simply turn this into his biggest advantage by confounding his critics."

Pakistanis will now be watching Zardari's relations with the country's powerful army.

"Mr. Zardari will have to establish a close relationship with the army and win its trust," said Najam Sethi, editor of Pakistan's English language newspaper the Daily Times. "Whether he will be an effective president remains to be seen."

Zardari seems to have convinced the U.S. government that he will cooperate more fully than President Musharraf in going after Islamic militants. So far, Zardari's party has alternated between peace deals with the militants and highly unpopular military operations -- the majority of Pakistanis still view the war on terror as America's war.

He has promised the parliamentarians from the militant-infested border areas and the North West Frontier province to initiate a political process to deal with the insurgency. They will hold him to his word. Once he assumes the presidency, however, Washington will be demanding action and not peace deals.