Q&A: Asif Ali Zardari on Pervez Musharraf's Resignation

Eighteen years ago, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto lost her job for the first time, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was jailed for corruption. Before she was assassinated last December, Bhutto looked set to reclaim the job of prime minister for the third time. Now Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has been nominated to replace Gen. Pervez Musharraf as president. NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth spoke with Zardari last week. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Was Musharraf's resignation a big day for you?
Asif Ali Zardari:
It was a momentous day—especially for the forces like us who believe democracy is the best revenge.

Will he stay in Pakistan?
Let's see what the Parliament decides.

Did you come to an agreement before he departed?
No. He hasn't got anything yet. There is a general understanding that we are not looking to [get] into any messy fights. We are not interested in doing anything against him—we are looking for a transition to full democracy.

So he could stay?
He is welcome to stay. Why shouldn't he stay?

Did he get indemnity from future prosecution?
No, the Parliament will decide that. Everybody knows the Pakistan Peoples Party's position is that we are not into revenge.

So can we say he has an agreement against future prosecution?
That depends on the future president—he can give a presidential pardon.

Should the new president give up the powers that Musharraf seized--being able to dissolve the Parliament, for instance?
We fought this war for democracy, and all the powers that Musharraf enjoyed were obviously non-democratic. We need to have a debate in the Parliament and see how strong we want the future president [to be] and how strong we want to make our prime minister. I think the president should not have the power to dissolve the assembly.

So the new president would play a more ceremonial role?
Yes, more ceremonial. Parliament is sovereign, and one has to look at the future of Pakistan's democracy as more important than individuals as such.

You and your coalition partner Nawaz Sharif were united in the cause of removing Musharraf. Now that he is gone, do you think you will remain united?
We are hoping to be united. I want everybody to own the problems that we face: we haven't inherited a stable Pakistan; we haven't inherited a good economy; we haven't inherited a very nice situation on our borders. And all that needs to be addressed, and for that we need a government of reconciliation.

Reportedly, you don't favor reinstating former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, and Sharif does. What is your position on the chief justice?
I personally am in favor of the chief justice, but there is a position in the party, which says that he has become too politicized in the last many months and he has been leading rallies.

How do you think Musharraf's resignation affects the U.S. relationship with Pakistan?
I think the American relationship with Pakistan stays the same. The experiment with the general has failed. Therefore, the U.S. has decided to support the democratic forces. [The civilian government] will have issues, will be weak for the moment, but we will learn from our mistakes, and we will go on and we will improve. That is the journey that the country and the people have to take to make a strong democracy.

You must be sorry Benazir did not live to see this day.
It's the vacuum that has been created by the martyrdom of my late wife that has sparked the [new situation] in Pakistan. She said in her book, "My death will be the catalyst of the change."

Do you hold Musharraf responsible for her death?
I hold Musharraf responsible for not providing her with enough security but I cannot pinpoint Musharraf because I need a proper inquiry. I need the United Nations to look into the affair. But we are not looking to punish individuals. We are looking to create a new system, a new democratic Pakistan. I think her life meant the struggle for democracy and if democracy comes about, that will be the real revenge for her martyrdom.

You spent eleven and a half years in jail. Did you ever think you would see the day when you might become president of Pakistan?
I still don't think like that. Because of Benazir, nobody else [in her party] was thinking about leadership. This position comes about only because of the vacuum that was created with her death.

Would you like to see Musharraf exiled?
Personally I would like him to be around and see us flourish in Pakistan and make Pakistan a success story. I think that would be the revenge of Benazir Bhutto.

What is the relationship of the PPP and Nawaz Sharif with the military?
I think the military has come full circle and they are going to be following the Constitution ... They have realized that their business is not to govern.

So you think they will actually submit to a civilian government?
Yes, I definitely think so. If they had really interfered, then Musharraf could have become a [sticky] issue.

There were reports in the U.S. media that Pakistan's intelligence service (ISI) was involved in the recent bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan.
We in Pakistan have denied that story. The ISI is not responsible for the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan.

Do you think your party and Sharif's can control ISI?
Obviously ISI is going to be controlled. There is no other choice. ISI is part of the state.

I remember your wife thought the ISI was a problem.
I am not saying they haven't been a problem in the past, but everybody learns from their mistakes.

How stable do you believe the coalition government is, and can it last for five years?
The government is stable enough to last for five years. The people in the West have little experience with coalition governments, but if you look at the Indian model, you will find that there are [17] parties today in coalition in India. With four or five parties, we can manage.

So you are not worried about stability?
No, we are not even worried about a new election. If there is a fresh election, everybody will participate, and if another party is more popular than the PPP, they have a right to govern. And if they can't, we will come back.

Are you and Nawaz Sharif united on fighting extremism?
The Pakistan Peoples Party and my colleagues in opposition believe that this is a war on Pakistan—this is a war on our soil. It is our boys who are dying, our children who are homeless, our daughters who are being shut out of their homes, and we will defend our land.

Reportedly, extremism is growing in the tribal areas.
It has grown since we were last in government, but obviously that happened because democratic forces have not been around. Democracy is the cure.

Your late wife Benazir told me that she found terrorism to be more widespread than she had expected when she returned to Pakistan last fall, and she blamed Musharraf.
I agree with her. It happened on his watch and on the world's watch—it's not only Gen. Musharraf who is responsible ... It has grown since we were last in government, but obviously that happened because democratic forces have not been around. Democracy is the cure ...The world was with him in partnership, and everybody should share responsibility.

So you blame everybody?
I think everybody failed. Obviously we need to find a cure, which includes democratic wisdom rather than just a martial mindset.

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