Once ‘Mr Ten Percent’, now Pakistan’s president

By Muhammad Najeeb, IANS,

Islamabad : From being one of Pakistan’s more controversial figures and even politically irrelevant until eight months ago, it has been a complete reversal of fortunes for Asif Ali Zardari, who was Saturday elected as the country’s 13th president.

Support TwoCircles

Identified as “corruption maestro” and “Mr.Ten Percent”, for his alleged reputation in taking commission on major government deals when his late wife and two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto was in power from 1988-1990 and 1994-1996, Zardari is now the most powerful man in the country as co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, which is in power at the centre and in three of the four provinces.

His election as president is being considered yet another dramatic turning point in the life of one of Pakistan’s most controversial figures.

Zardari, 55, was born to Hakim Ali Zardari, head of a Sindhi tribe, who chose urban life over rustic surroundings. He grew up in Karachi and was educated at St Patrick’s School – also the alma mater of his predecessor Pervez Musharraf.

The businessman married into the politically powerful Bhutto family in 1987, but always remained in the shadow of his illustrious wife. They went on to have three children. Ironically, it was with Bhutto’s assassination in December last year that he shot into the limelight.

None of the former civilian presidents of Pakistan have enjoyed such massive powers that Zardari will have as head of state. He is being compared to former military dictators Zia-ul Haq and Musharraf – both presidents – who had their handpicked men as prime ministers and called the shots.

Since Bhutto’s death, Zardari has led the party through successful general elections and worked with former political rivals in the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to oust Musharraf.

“Bhutto kept him away from politics because of his bad image. She thought it could damage the party,” a party leader commented after Zardari’s historic win adding, “But it’s a reversal of fortunes for him.”

Zardari spent 11 years in jail on charges of corruption. He was never convicted.

In 1990, Zardari was accused of tying a remote-controlled bomb to the leg of a businessman and sending him into a bank to withdraw money from his account as a pay-off. Zardari was put into jail by the caretaker government but was later made minister by his wife who secured victory in the 1993 elections and took over as prime minister.

In 1996, he was again arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance. Among several other charges, Zardari was blamed for murdering his brother-in-law Mir Murtaza Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto’s elder brother.

He was also charged, along with his wife, in a kickbacks scam involving a Swiss company, SGS.

His last prison sentence lasted eight years until 2004, during which time he says he was tortured by the jail authorities. However, he was released and allowed to leave the country for medical treatment in the United States under a reported deal with the PPP that he would not issue any political statements.

Since his release from jail in Pakistan in October 2004 till Bhutto’s death, Zardari virtually issued not a single statement on Pakistani politics.

During his imprisonment he also submitted several medical reports saying he was suffering from dementia and other mental disorders.

“Such certificates are usually submitted by powerful prisoners to get concessions,” says a jail officer.