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Zardari's career takes unlikely turn

After prison, the assassination of his wife and political intrigue, ex-playboy looks set to replace Musharraf.
Asif Ali Zardari owes his political career to his slain wife, Benazir Bhutto.
Asif Ali Zardari owes his political career to his slain wife, Benazir Bhutto.

ISLAMABAD // Ten years ago, Asif Ali Zardari was languishing in jail on charges of corruption and murder. Nine months ago he was free, but still effectively Mr Benazir Bhutto. But fast forward to Aug 2008, Bhutto, a former prime minster and leader of the Pakistan People's Party, is in her grave and her 52-year-old widower is the prime candidate to succeed ousted Pervez Musharraf as president. It is another astonishing turnaround for Mr Zardari, who has gone from playboy polo player to minister and then to eight years in jail over allegations that he has always denied. Following Mr Musharraf's resignation as president last week, the PPP, which Bhutto led until her assassination in December, has nominated Mr Zardari to contest presidential elections on Sept 6.

Last night he accepted his party's nomination and he will stand in the vote to be carried out by parliament and the four provincial assemblies. Yet, becoming president will be fraught with risk - not only for the gravelly-voiced Mr Zardari but also for the political stability of a nation that is still pinching itself to believe that he could be head of state. "Not just 10 years ago, but even six months ago, people would have laughed," said Talat Masood, a political analyst and former Pakistani army general. But Mr Zardari as president would be welcomed by the United States as far as Pakistan's role in the "war on terror" is concerned. "From pure expediency, the US will welcome someone they have been backing for some time as being powerful politically," said Mr Masood. "But they have to see what is in the long-term interest of Pakistan, and a person of a higher standing would be a far better choice for Pakistan."

Born on July 21 1956, Mr Zardari was the unknown scion of a family of landowners and polo players from the southern province of Sindh when he married into the Bhutto political dynasty in 1987. His marriage to Bhutto was an arranged union, and she wondered whether any man would be able to take a back seat to her destiny. "Was there a man in existence who could break with tradition enough to adjust to the fact that my first commitment would always be to the people of Pakistan and not to him?" she wrote in her autobiography, Daughter of the East.

Mr Zardari proved to be that man, and was rewarded with a minister's job after she became premier in 1988. Yet when her government was dismissed two years later on corruption charges, his reputation for taking kickbacks, which had earned him the sobriquet "Mr 10 per cent", was blamed by many party supporters for its downfall. He then spent 28 months in prison after Nawaz Sharif became prime minister from 1990 to 1993. Mr Zardari was freed and returned to the corridors of power after Mr Sharif's ouster, this time as investment removal, but he found himself back in jail after the dismissal of Bhutto's second government. He would spend another eight years behind bars, also suffering several heart attacks. One of the charges against him related to the murder of Bhutto's brother, Murtaza, who was killed in a shoot-out with police that year. Mr Zardari finally won his freedom in 2004 and joined his wife in exile in Dubai.

He then remained there with their three children when Bhutto returned to Pakistan in Oct 2007, after securing a power- sharing deal with Mr Musharraf under which he agreed to drop all the charges against them. The deal was reached with US and British intervention. She escaped a suicide bombing on that occasion, but fell victim to another two months later, after which Mr Zardari's unlikely rise to power began. The PPP appointed his 19-year-old son Bilawal as chairman shortly after her death, but named him co-chairman and effectively gave him the reins. After the PPP won the most seats in elections in February there was speculation that he would become prime minister. He gave that role to Yousaf Raza Gilani, a Bhutto loyalist, but remained as the power behind the throne. It has been Mr Zardari, not Mr Gilani, who has negotiated with his old foe Mr Sharif to reach an agreement on launching the impeachment charges that drove Mr Musharraf from power.

But it has also been Mr Zardari who has reneged on his pledge to reinstate judges whom Mr Musharraf sacked during a state of emergency last year, leading Mr Sharif to threaten his withdrawal from the ruling coalition. Critics have accused Mr Zardari of not wanting to bring back Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice, because he could overturn the Musharraf-era amnesty and leave him open to prosecution and a possible prison term. Becoming president would overcome that hurdle, because the head of state cannot be prosecuted.

If he does go on to lead Pakistan, Mr Zardari will face a sceptical public, said Shafqat Mehmood, an analyst and newspaper columnist. "I think the party will be happy but there will be a lot of questions in other people's minds," Mr Mehmood said. "Although never convicted of any crime, he has been accused of many and that makes him controversial." Mr Mehmood said he would have to win the respect of Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence establishment to succeed, he said. Under the constitution, Mr Zardari, if elected, would also have to step down as head of the PPP, making it potentially weaker in the face of Mr Sharif's soaring popularity. @Email:nraven@thenational.ae

Updated: August 23, 2008 04:00 AM

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