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Profile: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat – As Pakistani paramilitary forces rush to protect government buildings and bridges in a Taliban-infiltrated district just 60 miles from the capital, Asharq Al-Awsat takes a look at the man at the centre of the storm; Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

The late Benazir Bhutto used to describe him as the ‘Nelson Mandela of Pakistan.’ The logic was simple; Asif Ali Zardari spent eleven years imprisoned, which was clearly comparable to the jail sentence of the great African freedom fighter and the father of modern-day South Africa, Nelson Mandela. However in making this comparison between Nelson Mandela and her spouse, Asif Ali Zardari, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, completely ignored the different nature of the charges that both these leaders were facing as prisoners.

The majority of the Pakistani population did not buy into the idea that Asif Ali Zardari was qualified to be proclaimed the ‘Nelson Mandela of Pakistan’ but in the highly polarized world of Pakistani politics a large number of people hold him in an even higher regard than Nelson Mandela.

For the activists of the Pakistan People’s Party [PPP], Asif Ali Zardari sacrificed eleven years for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan; thus he was considered a prisoner of conscience. The most popular argument in the PPP in support of their incumbent leader is that Asif Ali Zardari spent eleven years in prison on charges ranging from murder, kidnapping and plundering the national exchequer without being convicted once by any court of law.

There is another nickname Asif Ali Zardari earned after he married Benazir Bhutto in December 1987. Within one year of their marriage, Benazir Bhutto assumed the office of Prime Minister and soon Asif Ali Zardari became famous in Pakistan’s political circles and among the diplomatic community of Islamabad as ‘Mr Ten Per Cent’ for demanding payment on every government contract that his wife’s government was awarding to Pakistani businesses and multi-national companies.

Asif Ali Zardari’s marriage with Benazir Bhutto in the late 1980s brought a 31-year old man from a middle-class, feudal background into the national limelight. Benazir Bhutto had returned from exile and was received with unprecedented support by Pakistani public opinion, which had started to turn against the oppressive military government of General Zia-ul-Haq.

At the time the young Benazir Bhutto was seen in the public eye as a “queen” of the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people. Her marriage to the son of an unknown feudal family was considered odd by the Pakistani media.

Asif Ali Zardari’s father, Hakim Ali Zardari, comes from a feudal background from the Sindh province and settled in the coastal city of Karachi in the 1950s where he set up a cinema after finding agro-farming not lucrative enough for a large family.

Asif Ali Zardari was born in 1955 in Karachi, where he received his early education from Karachi Grammar School. At a later stage, his father moved him to a cadet college. Cadet colleges in Pakistan are run by ex-military men and normally, semi-military discipline is maintained in these boarding schools.

His marriage to a political leader of national stature in 1987 was perhaps the most important event of Asif Ali Zardari’s life, which threw him into the limelight not only in Pakistan but across the world.

Often in lighter moods, Asif Ali Zardari used to joke with media figures that he had two fates in store; “Either I will live in the comfortable atmosphere of the Prime Minister’s house or the dark cells of Pakistani jails.” This is what Asif Ali Zardari said in an interview in 1996 a few days before he was arrested on corruption charges after the then President Farooq Leghari dismissed the Bhutto government and imprisoned Zardari for an indefinite period.

Zardari’s prophecy came true; he was sent to jail after Bhutto’s government was dismissed in August 1990 and was released after a special court acquitted him of fraud and murder charges in 1993. Months later Zardari was again living in the comfortable atmosphere of the Prime Minister’s residence when Benazir Bhutto again secured a victory in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections and became Prime Minister.

This time Asif Ali Zardari enjoyed the luxuries of the Prime Minister’s house for three years only as once again Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed and he landed in prison once more.

Throughout this period, Asif Ali Zardari remained the most sought political figure on Pakistan’s political scene as the Pakistani media and state apparatus was obsessed with the dark side of his life. Recently, the western media has become fixated on bringing up his troubled past and creating an image problem for Asif Ali Zardari and his government in Pakistan.

Even the PPP’s stalwarts agree that Asif Ali Zardari has a serious problem with regards to his image and the sooner he overcomes this problem the better. In a television interview, a senior figure in the PPP and the current central Information Secretary, Fauzia Wahab, told Pakistani media that the PPP was working on a strategy to tackle the negative portrayal of President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistani and western media.

The PPP will face an uphill struggle in this regard. In the words of senior political analysts, there is a strong basis to President Asif Ali Zardari’s problem regarding his image.

The charges against Asif Ali Zardari ranged from allegations of murder, kidnapping and extortion. Zardari’s supporters defend him by saying that he was victimized by the military-backed governments because of his strong position in support of democracy.

Part of the Pakistani media persisted with its witch-hunt against President Zardari and this led to a serious problem.

Asif Ali Zardari was first arrested in 1990 on charges of attempted murder and extortion stemming from an alleged plot to kidnap a Pakistani businessman. The Pakistani government accused Asif Ali Zardari and his accomplice Ghulam Hussein Unar of attaching a bomb to Pakistani-born British businessman Murtaza Hussein Bukhari and forced him to cash $800,000 in cheques from a Pakistani bank. Asif Ali Zardari denied the charges and was later acquitted by the court.

During the 1990s Pakistani newspapers were full of stories about the corruption of Asif Ali Zardari. They included allegations of taking bribes from Dubai-based gold traders, accepting bribes from French weapon dealers who were selling submarines and fighter jets to Pakistani armed forces. He bought expensive villas on the outskirts of London and expensive jewellery worth millions of dollars.

When Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October 2007 after spending almost ten years in exile in London, Asif Ali Zardari was unwilling to join her. He was dividing his time between New York, London and Dubai.

However Benazir Bhutto was secretly negotiating with the Pakistani regime under General Pervez Musharraf for the safe return of her spouse, Asif Ali Zardari.

In return for granting him political legitimacy, General Musharraf was willing to pardon Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari from all corruption charges including money laundering.

Eventually, former President Pervez Musharraf paved the way for the safe return of Asif Ali Zardari to Pakistan by enacting a law known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) which allowed Zardari to clear himself of corruption charges.

In present day Pakistan, the NRO is another stigma attached to President Asif Ali Zardari. When any politician criticizes the president, they simply accuse him of being a beneficiary of the NRO, which is considered synonymous with financial corruption.

When former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif launched a popular anti-government movement in March 2009 for the restoration of Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, he simply accused President Zardari of being the by-product of Musharraf’s promulgated law.

To overcome his political shortcomings, President Ali Zardari launched a national reconciliation effort soon after his election as President of Pakistan. In the eyes of Pakistan’s powerful military, these efforts are of great value especially when the centrifugal forces are pulling the country apart.

Soon after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007, southern Pakistan descended into intense violence as the people of Sindh, where there are strong separatist tendencies and which is the home province of Benazir Bhutto, vented their anger against the killing of their leader.

During his recent visit to Islamabad, US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke told a group of journalists in Islamabad that Asif Ali Zardari saved Pakistan from the brink of civil war in 2007.

In the words of senior political analyst Asif Ali Zardari played a great role in pacifying the anger of Sindhi people in December 2007. “In his first press conference after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari raised the slogan ‘Long live Pakistan,’ and tried to pacify the anger of Sindhi people,” said Fasih-ur-Rehman, a senior political commentator.

But at the same time Asif Ali Zardari created the biggest political controversy in Pakistan’s political history through emotional decisions that he made. On December 27, 2007, the police chief of Rawalpindi, the city in which Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, approached Asif Ali Zardari to seek his permission to carry out an autopsy on Benazir Bhutto’s body but Zardari refused. His decision gave rise to controversy that is yet to be settled. The police have not determined Bhutto’s exact cause of death, the most important element in any police investigation into an assassination, because no autopsy was carried out.

President Zardari has recently made his debut in the diplomatic world, in which he does not have much experience. He has twice served as minister in the governments of Benazir Bhutto but never came close to the world of diplomacy.

A senior Pakistani diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat that President Zardari would find it difficult to fill the shoes of his late wife Benazir Bhutto who was an expert in international diplomacy and foreign relations.

The diplomat added that Asif Ali Zardari was simply trying to copy Benazir Bhutto’s style with little success. This can be seen in his speeches against the threat of extremism and militancy.

Soon after Zardari assumed the presidency, the New York Times reported that there was unauthorized contact between the Pakistani president and senior American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad.

At present President Asif Ali Zardari is the most powerful political figure in Pakistan with an army fully supporting his government and the main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif not intending to embark on any political adventure.

But amid this apparent political calm, the president’s past continues to haunt him. There continues to be an intense campaign against President Zardari, which includes the use of SMS messages. The Pakistani Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, recently threatened to block the SMS messaging system unless its negative use is stopped.