Zardari: the skeletons are coming to haunt him

By Zofeen T. Ebrahim, IANS

Karachi : Once viewed by many as a liability, Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of the slain Benazir Bhutto, has in a tragic turn of events taken control of her popular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). But despite his sudden rise in status, the skeletons in his closet have once again come to haunt him.

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Thanks to the ‘will’ left behind by Benazir that bequeathed the party’s rope to him and who, in his “wisdom”, has passed it on to his 19-year old son Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto, Zardari still finds it increasingly difficult to shrug off the personal baggage that he carries in the form of a besmirched reputation – with a whole gamut of allegations ranging from corruption, murders, money-laundering and even smuggling of artefacts and drugs.

Not a widely-liked person, the mustachioed 51-year old small time feudal-lord Zardari who, many say, resembles the erstwhile military dictator Zia ul Haq, was one of the foremost reasons for Benzair Bhutto’s ouster from office, not once but twice.

Although married to her for 20 years, he spent less than five years with her.

While many still scathingly refer to him as “Mr. 10 percent”, fearing that if the PPP claims victory in the February elections, he may well become Mr. 100 percent, there is a small minority that feels he has the political astuteness in him to turn the party around and steer it to its original radical path.

Looking upon this quasi-coronation with hostility, many consider him completely unsuitable for the job and Benazir’s ‘will’ as yet another ploy to grab power. There are even murmurs that he may have had a hand in her assassination for he benefited the most in her demise.

Senior journalist Najma Sadeque, has no qualms about expressing her scepticism. She says Zardari will never be able to steer the party with the same deftness as Benazir Bhutto as he is not very different from other leaders — military or fascist. “His feet, like his head, are too big for her shoes. He would just tear them apart, I mean the party.”

“I don’t see any leadership qualities in him,” Bushra Gohar, an Islamabad-based rights activist, told IANS. She foresees “rifts created in the party ranks and many parting ways in the months to come.”

Deriding, Naeem Sadiq, a business consultant in Karachi equates Zardari’s political acumen to that of Nawaz Sharif and the “fumble mumble Choudaries” [of the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) supporting the president].

“Just as he was a liability to BB in her lifetime, so will he remain one to the PPP in future,” says Tahira Abdullah, also an Islamabad-based activist.

“He should have the incisiveness to see and acknowledge this, as well as the grace to step down voluntarily, if he has the welfare and the larger interests of the party at heart,” adds an infuriated Abdullah, who doubts if he will have the “selflessness and the magnanimity” to do so.

But there are others, like political analysts S. Akbar Zaidi, who disagree vehemently. “It was the obvious if not the right choice.” Zaidi says he would have been surprised if the leadership had gone to anyone other than Zardari. “Besides, there is no one else who carries that charisma.”

While he says it is still too early to foretell how “good or bad or more of the same” Zardari would be, he sees in the latter an “interim” leader to “fill in the space” and “a good 10 years of opportunity” to turn the party around to “its original radical path” that it started with.

“From what I’ve seen in the one week after Benazir’s demise, Zardari may work with a new team, which may be better or worse, only time will tell,” but he reckons him to be “a serious player” and a few months from now even “see him to be a prime minister for he has created that space for himself” now that the Bhutto chain has been broken, at least for a few years till the younger generation of Bhuttos grows.

The decision to steer the party in a new direction, according to Ayesha Siddiqa Agha, an independent security analyst, would be tough for Zardari because he was, after all, a non-Bhutto.

“Technically, if Pervez Musharraf can rule Pakistan, Zardari can command the PPP as well,” is how Siddiqa Agha views Zardari’s political astuteness. With the new leadership, she, too, hopes the party would “restructure itself and steer away from realpolitik to more ideology”.

Explaining further, she says the party had become conservative even under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir had compromised on several occasions and yet the party survived.

At the same time she warns that if Zardari “is seen becoming more pro-people the establishment might create problems.”

Apparently in Pakistani politics, a prison term for a politician is considered a sound qualification and in this Zardari’s eight-year prison stint in prison makes him a strong contender for his present role. According to Zaidi, he sees in him a “different man” who handled Benazir’s death with dignity mixed with defiance.

“He has performed quite well,” conceded Siddiqa Agha referring to his call to PPP supporters for peace and calm when violence erupted after Benazir’s demise. “He didn’t let ethnic tensions brew and, in fact, sent the right message to Punjab, its people and the military institution.”

Even Gohar asserts he handled the funeral well, reaching out to workers and family. “He was very effective in taking her mission of a strong federation to quell the anti-Punjab sentiments brewing within the party ranks.”

“I would have given him far greater licence to be aggressive and critical of the establishment and the government,” says Zaidi justifying Zardari’s anger.

But in all this, surprisingly, there has not been a whimper of protest from within the party itself which seems to have accepted his leadership with open arms.

“The political party needs to survive amongst its constituents. Since none of the PPP leaders can challenge Bhutto’s influence or the Bhutto family name they didn’t object to the decision,” reasons Siddiqa Agha.

But many say Zardari cashed in on the timing. “Perhaps,” says Gohar, “The party leaders couldn’t bring themselves to defy the wishes of their martyred leader”.

Sadeque, too gives a similar reason. “Under circumstances of public grieving, they[party] would have hardly been in a position to hurriedly organise a meeting to discuss the merits of the will. It would have been terribly bad-mannered to squabble immediately after a funeral.”

(Zofeen T. Ebrahim can be contacted at [email protected] )