Anjum Naveed/AP
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari

Can Pakistan’s New President Lead the Nation?

September 09, 2008 11:05 AM
by Josh Katz
Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, was sworn in as Pakistan’s new president Tuesday, yet many doubt his ability to run the country at such a critical time.

Zardari Becomes President, But Questions Remain

Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the late politician Benazir Bhutto, was elected president of Pakistan on Saturday, Sept. 6, taking 481 of the 702 electoral college votes.

Zardari was able to win despite corruption allegations in his past. Some call him Mr. Ten Per Cent "for the kickbacks he reportedly demanded from those wanting to do business with his wife’s government,” the Jerusalem Post writes. Others say he should be called Mr. Thirty Per Cent instead, saying that number is closer to the truth.

The politician with the questionable past now adopts a tumultuous country. The day after the election, on Sunday, a suicide bomber killed 35 people when a pickup filled with explosives “blew up at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Peshawar, capital of North-West Frontier Province,” according to the Associated Press. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, just the latest suicide bombing in a country trying to find its place in the war on terror.

Reuters describes the reactions of various Pakistani newspapers to Zardari’s election: He “must dispel the perception he is an artful politician and urgently address a deteriorating economy and worsening militant violence, newspapers said on Sunday.” An editorial from the Dawn newspaper said that Zardari must shed the image “that he is a political wheeler-dealer who is adept at making backroom deals but unable to rise to the requirements of statesmanship.”

According to Reuters, many newspapers also agree that “an early test” will be whether Zardari follows through with his pledge to remove the presidency of the ability to sack the parliament. Zardari already wields more power than any other Pakistani president: “he is president as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He runs the Government through a pliant Prime Minister. He appoints the ministers. He makes policy. He has the power to appoint the heads of the armed forces. He can appoint and sack judges,” according to The Australian.

Zardari will also have to pay particular attention to the economic difficulties the country is facing, the publications argue, including inflation of about 25 percent, “dwindling foreign reserves, a widening current account deficit and a sliding rupee,” Reuters reports.

Opinion & Analysis: Pakistan’s future with Zardari

Peter Preston of The Guardian is pessimistic about the success of a Zardari administration. Zardari and his party will be up against the other major element in Pakistani politics: the army. And unfortunately, “Zardari is as frail as they come,” according to Preston, who says that Zardari “isn’t a politician,” but a businessman who has been caught up in scandal after scandal. Preston suggests that Zardari will just become a puppet of the United States as it launches offensive raids into Pakistani territory; and once the United States loses faith in Zardari it will be happy to support a military administration.

An editorial from the Jerusalem Post also worries that Zardari may not be the man for the job, a particular concern for Israel because Pakistan is such a key player in the fight against terrorism. According to the editorial, the allegedly corrupt Mr. Ten Per Cent, with a personal bank account estimated between $30 million to $1 billion, may not appeal to the poor Pakistani population like a president should. In a country where “two-thirds of the population survives on $2 a day,” according to the Jerusalem Post, “Zardari is an unlikely figure to stabilize the country or give average Pakistanis a reason not to side with its fanatics.”

Arab News writes that Pakistan is currently at “one of the most critical periods in its history,” and expresses pessimism that Zardari can steer the country through. “Widely distrusted and with no obvious political experience, Zardari would seem to be entering on an impossible task to restore political and social stability, while leading Pakistan to the economic renaissance that has been so long delayed.”

India’s newspaper The Hindu disagrees, suggesting that Zardari could be a blessing for Pakistan and for peace in the area. “Several times he has articulated a vision that is focused on building bridges with India through trade and economic ties, setting aside the traditional ‘Kashmir first’ rhetoric,” the paper writes. “With a problem on its hands in Kashmir, India will welcome a Pakistani leadership that does not add fuel to the fire and is demonstrably able to overcome all internal opposition to an agenda for peace.”

Pakistan’s Daily Times lays out the daunting task ahead of Zardari, but emphasizes one particular aspect of it: Zardari is considered a friend of the United States.The paper agrees that maintaining such a friendship is important. Seen “from the point of view of realpolitik,” the president “has to continue and win the war against religious terrorism in the face of a parliament and a nation that is more inclined to ‘opt out of it.’” The newspaper is worried that by renouncing the war on terror, Pakistan would be distancing itself from the United States and Europe, potentially costing the country the investment needed to revitalize its economy and create a more stable nation.

But The Australian takes a different perspective. The paper claims that Zardari’s qualifications are beside the point; what is important is that he won the presidency in a fair and democratic manner, and that is great news for Pakistan. The Australian quotes a member of the Pakistan People’s Party: “We wanted democracy, and we’ve got it. It worked. There was a democratic election, and Asif, for all the mud that was thrown at him, won,” and “If he messes things up, hopefully we can throw him out.”

Key Player: Asif Ali Zardari


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