New Pakistan President Faces Daunting Challenges

As expected Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widower, was elected president of Pakistan Saturday by a landslide, winning nearly 70 percent of the votes cast. His cheering supporters hailed it as a "victory for democracy." He never faced any serious competition from the two other candidates, one representing Zardari's erstwhile coalition partner, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the other the routed party of former President Pervez Musharraf. Zardari's election marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the 53-year-old former playboy and polo player who wed Bhutto in a family-arranged marriage in 1987. Before Bhutto was assassinated last December while campaigning in the general election, Zardari's role seemed to be confined to taking care of their two younger daughters in Dubai, their 19-year-old son in London, and playing a secondary political role at best. Her death, last February's election victory of the Pakistan People's Party of which he is now co-chairman, and his own shrewd politicking have catapulted him into the presidency. He is being sworn into office Saturday as Pakistan's most powerful, and its most controversial, president in the country's 61-year history.

Pakistanis are now wondering what he will do with those extraordinary powers. The country is facing a near economic meltdown and a runway Islamic insurgency. Just before the vote a suicide bomber killed 16 Pakistanis in an attack on a police post in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Indeed, some Pakistanis doubt that he is up to the enormous task before him, largely because of his dubious past. Zardari spent more than 11 years in jail on a slew of corruption charges involving tens of millions of dollars and prime real estate deals. As a minister in his wife's government he had earned the unflattering sobriquet of Mr. Ten Percent from the alleged commissions he demanded on government contracts. But he was never convicted of the allegations that have now been dismissed, and which he says were politically motivated.

As president, Zardari holds near dictatorial clout. He is commander-in-chief of the powerful armed forces that have ruled the country for more than 30 years—since the country's independence from Britain. He is the custodian of the country's growing nuclear arsenal. He has the power to appoint all three military service chiefs, including the powerful army chief-of-staff, and to dissolve parliament. He handpicked the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, and his PPP is the dominant party in parliament.

Musharraf enjoyed all of those powers but he lacked the political legitimacy and the strong, nationwide political base that Zardari now has. Zardari, who never attended university, cleverly engineered his election by garnering the support of smaller regional parties from the three provinces that largely felt left out of the nation's power structure: Sindh (his and Bhutto's homeland), Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province. In the past political power usually flowed from the Punjab, the country's most populous and prosperous province, and home to most of the armed forces' top officers. By cobbling together these regional alliances outside Punjab, he not only won the election but he also gained the nationwide political support that former President Musharraf never had.

Zardari needs all the political clout he can get to face the country's daunting challenges. The once high-growth economy is seriously ill and not far from needed life-support. Inflation is raging at 25 percent, foreign exchange reserves are hemorrhaging, the stock market has lost 40 percent of its capitalization over the past few months, capital is fleeing, foreign investment has dried up, business confidence is shaken, and there are serious electricity shortages. Al Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists have become increasing aggressive and bent on expanding their influence even beyond the tribal agencies along the Afghanistan border where they have enjoyed relative safe havens. Over the past six months Gilani's rather rudderless government seems to have been incapable of dealing with these mounting problems.

There is a bright side, however. Over the past few months Zardari has proved himself to be an extremely capable and daring politician. He sacrificed his shaky coalition with Sharif to reach the presidency, once their marriage of convenience successfully forced Musharraf to resign early last month. That done, Zardari refused to follow through on two political promises to Sharif: to restore the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, and to nominate a joint, non-partisan presidential candidate. Zardari, it seems, never planned to do either. In a pique, Sharif withdrew his PML-N party from the coalition to sit in opposition. But Zardari was secure. He had done his homework and knew he had the numbers to be elected president in the indirect election in which the electors are the members of parliament and the four provincial assemblies. "He outmaneuvered everyone," says pro-Sharif MP and political columnist, Ayaz Amir. "He has run rings around the PML-N."

Now Zardari has to use that victory as a tool to fashion policies that will save the country from what many say is impending disaster. Unfortunately his performance while his wife served as prime minister is certainly not encouraging. "He will have to rise above his previous reputation of being Mr. Ten or Twenty Percent, and of having placed his cronies here and there," says Amir. He has not really outlined a vision for the country other than saying he wants it to be "free, pluralistic and democratic." Lahore-based political science professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais adds: "He has not shown us any vision as to which direction he will take us. We hope he will acquire the confidence of the people, and that he can evolve quickly from a very sharp, shrewd, wheeler-dealer into an internationally respected statesman."

Perhaps one of Zardari's first tests will be whether he practices what he preaches, and agrees to shed the presidency of the power to dissolve parliament. Now that Zardari is president and has immunity from prosecution, there is also talk that he may surprise many of his doubters and critics by reinstating Justice Chaudhry. In recent days the PPP-led government has already restored three Supreme Court justices and a dozen more lower court judges to the bench who had been removed by Musharraf under his state of emergency decree last year. Above all, Pakistanis hope Zardari will not turn into another autocrat given his extensive presidential powers. "The country can no longer afford personalized rule," says Nasim Zehra, a respected political columnist. "We desperately need institutionalized, transparent and competent decision making especially regarding the economy and security policy."

Indeed, Zardari's relations with the powerful military will be crucial. The military already mistrusts him as a result of the past corruption allegations, Pakistani security sources say. Nor did he endear himself to the generals when in late July the government announced it was transferring command of Pakistan's intelligence service (ISI) to the Interior Ministry that is headed by a close Zardari associate. Feeling the immediate heat from the military, the government immediately reversed its decision, but the damage had been done. One senior government official with close ties to the military says that the generals saw that ham-fisted move as "the first strike" against Zardari. "In baseball you only get three strikes," he quickly adds. Knowing that the military was suspicious of Zardari, some of his staunchest critics even seemed to hope that the generals would step in to prevent his election. One of Pakistan's most widely read English-language newspapers, The News, put on its front page an opinion piece written by one of its top editors asking "whether [military] intervention to stop the situation going totally out of hand is advisable?"

Army chief Parvez Kayani is in no mood to intervene in politics—at least not yet. He has studiously removed the army from playing any direct political role since he assumed the top slot from Musharraf late last year. He should be rather pleased with Zardari's unflinching support of the military's recent offensives in the tribal area, particularly in Bajaur where the security forces claim to have killed several hundred militants in ground, artillery and air attacks over the past three weeks. Ever since the new government replaced Musharraf after last February's elections, the generals have been trying to get the ruling coalition to take "ownership" of their aggressive military campaign against the tribal insurgents and Al Qaeda along the border. In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, Zardari did just that. "I will work to defeat the domestic Taliban insurgency and to ensure Pakistan territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks against our neighbors or on NATO forces in Afghanistan," he wrote. "We stand with the U.S., Britain, Spain and others who have been attacked. The war we are fighting is our own war."

That's music to the ears of the Bush administration and to presidential rivals John McCain and Barack Obama as well. They are publicly committed to urging, if not forcing, Pakistan "to do more" to combat extremism and end cross border attacks into Afghanistan. Zardari seems to be on board. Still, satisfying the demands of the United States in the war on terror will be difficult enough. Curing Pakistan's economic, social and political ills will even be harder.