Benazir Bhutto's controversial widower, Asif Ali Zardari, defended his position as temporary head of her Pakistan People's Party and left open the possibility that he might seek the nation's prime ministership as the mourning period for his wife neared its end this week.
Shortly after his wife's assassination on Dec. 27, Zardari named his and Bhutto's 19-year-old son, Bilawal, party chairman and indicated that the party's prime-ministerial candidate would be PPP vice chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim. But in a phone interview with NEWSWEEK on Monday, Zardari suggested he might be interested in the job himself if the scheduled Feb. 18 national vote brings the PPP to power, saying that he has the widest name recognition in the party. "There is no one single personality [in the party], apart from me, who anybody even knows," he said. "No one else has a consensus."
Faced with a whispering campaign at home that he might not be Bhutto's legitimate heir, Zardari directed that a copy of her handwritten political will be made publicly available to prove that Bhutto named him as her successor. In the will, a copy of which was obtained by NEWSWEEK, Bhutto addresses "the officials and members" of the PPP and writes, "I would like my husband Asif Ali Zardari to lead you in this interim period until you and he decide what is best."
Bhutto also praises the officials and members of her party, saying no leader could have been prouder of their "dedication, devotion and discipline" in the struggle for "a Federal, Democratic and Egalitarian Pakistan." Later she adds, "I fear for the future of Pakistan. Please continue the fight against extremism, dictatorship, poverty and ignorance." (Click here to read the full document.)
Two longtime associates and loyalists of Bhutto's say there is no doubt it is her handwriting. "I know her style," says Mark Siegel, her longtime friend and Washington-based representative. "She wrote this document." The will, dated Oct. 16, 2007, was written the same day Bhutto sent a letter to President Pervez Musharraf that identified three people she said were planning to assassinate her upon her return to Pakistan after seven years of exile.
Pakistan is scheduled to hold national elections this month after a delay of six weeks prompted by rioting in the days following Bhutto's assassination. Many election observers, including Bush administration officials, believe the PPP will dominate the voting, in part because of the anguish over Bhutto's murder. "There is almost an expectation that that's likely to happen," says a senior administration official.
But U.S. officials, already concerned about Pakistan's stability in the wake of widespread protests against Musharraf's rule, worry about Zardari's prominence in the party. A former playboy and polo star, Zardari is considered a mistrusted—and divisive—figure in Pakistan. He is widely blamed for the tangle of corruption that strangled and cut short Bhutto's terms in office. "The PPP has the potential to be far more than the party of the Bhutto family. It had been putting itself forward as the legitimate reform party," the administration official said. "There is some concern if the party reverts back to a somewhat monarchial-style system." Syed Farooq Hasnat, a scholar at Washington's Middle East Institute, said that Pakistanis "are not ready for Zardari."
Zardari, asked whether he was now interested in the prime ministership, at first demurred. "In order to be prime minister you have to be a member of Parliament. I'm not running for this Parliament at the moment," he said. But Zardari added that the party leadership would ultimately decide who the PM candidate should be. "We're not saying I am [one] or saying I'm not," he said. He also argued that he had earned credibility by having gone to prison on what he says are trumped-up charges of corruption. "The fact of the matter is that there's nobody in the party with my seniority who's been to prison for 11 years," he said.
Asked how he could justify the rather feudal practice of making a modern political party a family legacy, Zardari noted that he was following his wife's lead. "She herself started her career as co-chairman with her mother. After her father was assassinated, she and his wife become leaders."