x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Asif Ali Zardari: any help gratefully received

Jailed, widowed and once branded Mr Ten Per Cent, the Pakistani president has emerged from his wife's shadow to find the burden of leadership heavier than expected.

<i>Illustration by Kagan McLeod</i>
<i>Illustration by Kagan McLeod</i>

Asif Ali Zardari has never been afraid to ask for what he wants: a couple of billion dollars in arms and military equipment, a few billion more for schools, refugees and a police force that also needs new jackets, shoes and helmets. They may be bold demands considering the president of Pakistan is known at home as "Mr Ten Per Cent", a nickname dating back to the days of his late wife Benazir Bhutto's premiership, when allegations of misrule and kickbacks on government contracts were so bad they brought down her government.

But America can only grit its teeth and comply because Mr Zardari shrewdly understands that Pakistan is in a position unique for a poverty-stricken nation looking for a handout: it is in possession of at least 60 short and medium-range nuclear ballistic missiles which must under no circumstance ever be allowed to fall into the hands of the Taliban fanatics waging war against the state. Congress has pledged US$7.5 billion (Dh27.5bn) over the next five years for non-military projects in addition to the $12bn in military aid the US has given Pakistan since 2001.

The Americans will have to ignore the report given to Pakistan's Supreme Court on Tuesday by a major anti-corruption organisation which alleges that Mr Zardari has $1.5bn in assets around the world, most of it received during his wife's second term in office in 1993. Mr Zardari denies all the allegations and has never been convicted. He has been president for little more than one year but in that time the Taliban have seized territory within 160km of Islamabad and the military offensives to push them back in Swat and Waziristan have caused the worst displacement of civilians since Partition. Every day insurgents retaliate with another suicide bomb. And the economy is in tatters; Pakistan narrowly avoided bankruptcy thanks to an IMF loan coupled with remittances sent by citizens working abroad.

No wonder Mr Zardari recently declared: "I have the most difficult job in the world." If he does manage to serve a full five-year term he would be the first civilian leader to do so in Pakistan's 62-year history. In keeping with the tradition of dynastic politics, his other task is ensuring the left-leaning Pakistan People's Party (PPP), founded by his late father-in-law, stays in family hands. As co-chairman of the party he is regent until his son Bilawal, 21, finishes his studies at Oxford University and takes over, as specified by Bhutto before she was assassinated two years ago during an election rally in Rawalpindi.

Asif Ali Khan Zardari was just another polo-playing aristocrat - albeit one with a disco in his house - when his marriage to Bhutto in December 1987 propelled him into the national spotlight and secured him a place in the most glamorous of the powerful feudal families who dominate Pakistani politics. The Zardaris, originally from Iranian Baluchistan, moved to Sindh province, also home of the Bhuttos, several hundred years ago. His father Hakim Ali was a politician and ran a cinema in Karachi.

Bhutto's family wanted the match because his landowning family, although not as grand, understood local customs and traditions. Mr Zardari was trim with a wide, sly grin and a luxuriant moustache. He pursued Benazir for two years, even sending a crate of mangoes from Fortnum & Mason. But Bhutto was hesitant because she did not want to give up politics. There could be no question of a divorce - it would end her political career in the socially conservative society.

His family assured her Asif would be supportive. "My dear, Asif is a very confident young man. He understands what he is in for," his stepmother told Bhutto. She finally agreed to marry him after a trip to Windsor, in England. A bee stung her hand and Mr Zardari took charge, rushing her to hospital for treatment. She liked being taken care of. But Bhutto was also rich and dazzlingly beautiful. When a journalist asked Zardari if he was in love with her, he responded: "Isn't everyone?"

In time he would become a political liability. In 1988, the PPP was elected and Bhutto became prime minister, the first post-colonial female Muslim leader in the world. But within 20 months her government was dismissed because of accusations of corruption and nepotism. Mr Zardari was charged on several counts of corruption and was jailed despite the lack of a court conviction. He claimed the charges were politically motivated.

When Bhutto returned to power in 1993, Mr Zardari was released from prison and appointed federal environment minister, and then federal minister for investment. It was during that time he was given the nickname, Mr Ten Per Cent. Bhutto's government was sacked for a second time after allegations of misrule and corruption. The main target was Zardari. A report for the US Senate in 1999 contained allegations that some of Zardari's accounts were used to hold millions of dollars in kickbacks for a gold-importing contract in Pakistan.

It was at this time that he bought the 355-acre Rockwood estate in the English county of Surrey. When he asked to buy the village pub, the Dog and Pheasant, he was told it was not for sale, so he had a replica of the bar made in the house. When news of the estate purchase surfaced, Bhutto denied knowledge and suggested her husband had perhaps bought the property to house a mistress. Mr Zardari's response was to complain about his political rival Nawaz Sharif's London properties. "Those Park Lane flats are worth more than Rockwood twice over," he said.

The waters became murkier still when Mr Zardari was accused of being implicated in the murder of Bhutto's estranged brother, Mir Murtaza, who had set up a splinter party to the PPP and was shot dead in 1996 by police. After her government was dismissed, Bhutto left Pakistan and went into self-exile in Dubai. Mr Zardari was thrown in prison for eight years but never convicted of the murder and corruption charges. He claims he was tortured and once had his tongue ripped open.

After he was released on bail in 2004 he went to New York City to recover in a lavish Manhattan flat. By then, Pakistan was once again under military rule, led by Pervez Musharraf who appointed himself president. Under pressure to bring democratic reform to the ailing state, the US and Britain helped to negotiate a deal in which Musharraf passed a decree giving amnesty to 8,000 politicians and senior officials facing corruption charges.

It was meant to pave the way for the couple's return and allow Bhutto to stand in an election. A Swiss court unfroze $60 million in assets owned by Mr Zardari and two relatives, unable to press money-laundering charges involving illegal commissions the couple had allegedly received from two Swiss companies because of the amnesty. But Bhutto's return to Pakistan went terribly wrong when a suicide bomber rammed her vehicle during an election rally in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, as she stood on the open sunroof waving to well-wishers. Video images later showed a separate gunman firing at her.

A United Nations commission is investigating the circumstances of her murder and in an illustration of the climate of suspicion that characterises Pakistan, Zardari has been accused of not being forthcoming with the investigation. Within weeks of her death, the PPP, with Mr Zardari as co-chairman, was swept into power on a wave of sympathy. But his personal popularity was so low that during the campaign, the party kept him out of the public eye. At the Bhutto family tomb in Sindh where vendors sold memorabilia of the clan, photographs of Mr Zardari were conspicuously absent.

Musharraf stepped down as president in August 2008, and a month later Mr Zardari was elected to the post by the electoral college in the national assembly. The corruption-amnesty expired on November 28 of this year and the Supreme Court is considering its legality. Mr Zardari is immune from prosecution while in office, but his opponents in the military, judicial and political establishment want him gone.

Meanwhile, he is struggling to bring the turbulent nation under civilian control. In an attempt to take power away from the presidential position, he stepped down as chairman of the national command authority which oversees the nuclear weapons. "Contrary to some of the commentary on the subject, this is not a sign of weakness, but rather a demonstration of the vitality of Pakistani democracy," he wrote in a comment piece in The New York Times on Thursday.

He has tried to bring the ISI, the shadowy intelligence agency accused of having links to insurgents, under civilian control by transferring it from the army to the ministry of interior. The army simply refused. Mr Zardari has stepped out of his wife's shadow, but the mantle of responsible leadership is perhaps harder than he expected. The row of gleaming teeth is still there but the once louche moustache is greying and sparse.

* The National