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Asif Zardari: from dark horse to triumphant president

Mansoor Jafar

Published: Updated:

Asif Zardari became the first Pakistani president in the country’s history to make an “honorable exit” after completing his five-year constitutional term.

Known as the most controversial civilian president in the country’s history, Zardrari lived up to his reputation as a shrewd politician and manipulator until the end of presidency. He was seen off with the military guard of honor and received a grand farewell dinner hosted by the new Prime Minister and his arch political rival, Nawaz Sharif.

He has decided to live in the palatial bomb-proof Bilawal House, a huge palace-like fortress near Lahore for next few years. He intends to re-establish his party in the country’s largest province after it faced a serious political defeat in recent elections.

Dignified exit

The presidential house in Pakistan has never before witnessed such a graceful exit of an incumbent. President General Ziaul Haq was killed in a plane crash in 1988; Ghulam Ishaq Khan was forced out by the then Army Chief General (retired Waheed Kakar in 1993); former President Farooq Leghari was forced to resign by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1997 and former President Rafiq Tarar was unceremoniously thrown out by General [retired] Pervez Musharraf in 2002.

The nation was amazed to see both Nawaz Sharif and Zardari showering praise and good wishes on each other at the farewell dinner speeches, despite tense relations and a barrage of accusations in the last five years. Both decided to bury the hatchet and work together to strengthen democracy in the country. Zardari also vowed to strengthen Nawaz’s regime in the future instead of destabilizing it.

Tactics

Zardari’s era as president was a strange combination of two political extremes. On one hand it was dubbed as the darkest chapter of the country’s political history earning him the notoriety of cashing in on his wife Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination for his personal political success. He became president at the cost of dividing her political party, the legacy of her late father Z.A. Bhutto.

During his term in office, Pakistani government was ranked among the top corrupt regimes in the world.

Mansoor Jafar

The other extreme could deemed rather positive: it saw him displaying remarkable skills of political maneuvering and coaxing his political adversaries like Nawaz Sharif, Asfandyar Wali and Chaudhris of Gujrat, into joining the government of his party. He forced military dictator General [retired] Musharraf out of the presidential huse with the help of Nawaz Sharif.

Zardari’s supporters credit him for preventing the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from total disintegration by taking the reins himself after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He shunned the earlier “Sindh card” practice of the PPP, a term used for spurring on the separatist elements in the Sindh province against the federal government run by a leader from Punjab or a military establishment, a move the PPP had made in the past to gain a bargaining position against the center.

Durability

Mr. Zardari displayed extraordinary shrewdness in dealing with some of the most adverse circumstances he faced after assuming the charge of president. This is particularly the case when he found powerful military establishment, media and a number of political opponents lined up against him. His unexpected rise to the presidency was so incredible that the media repeatedly predicted his early departure during the first four years of his presidency. He smartly countered the judiciary, which was hearing some strong corruption cases against him, some of which had solid evidence. His wrangling with the judiciary regarding corruption cases in Swiss courts eventually led him to sacrifice Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani just six months before the government was due to end its term.

Asif Ali Zardari used an extremely elastic strategy to outsmart his adversaries and managed to complete the five-year term of his office. He showed both flexibility and firmness, wherever required, often trapping opponents into his smart moves, and played with them for his own benefit. In the later stage of his presidency he was believed to have been using his adversaries against one another.

He coaxed the majority of his political rivals including Chaudhris of Gujrat, Asfandyar Wali Khan and self-styled cleric Fazlur Rehman among others into giving up their grudges and joining his government by crossing over the political divide. He made unbelievable compromises and displayed the ability to cleverly befriend enemies of long time, as he won over the bitter enemies of the PPP. Moreover, he encouraged Chaudhri Shujaat and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi to join the coalition government to maintain its majority in parliament after the sudden departure of MQM.

Iron fist

As for the dark extreme, Zardari never ran the PPP democratically and caused divisions in one of the biggest political parties in the country in order to achieve his own political gains. He assumed the party’s top slot for himself soon after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and within months he had nominated himself to be president of the country. Prior to that, he was considered the dark horse in the Bhutto family whose corruption caused premature dissolution of Benazir Bhutto’s government twice. Eventually, Bhutto dismissed him from party affairs by forcing him to leave Pakistan to look after business in Dubai and London.

He sidelined veteran PPP leaders like Makhdoom Amin Fahim, Aitzaz Ahsan and other old guards like Benazir’s political advisor Naheed Khan, who had run the party for two decades, instead choosing to promote his own loyalists to the top slots. He ran the party like a private limited company owned by his family.

The worst part was that he failed badly in arresting killers of Benazir Bhutto and bringing them to trial despite making promises to punish them. He even failed to reveal the identity of the killers, despite publicly promising several times during the initial years to do it at an opportune time.

He kept both offices, president of the country and co-chairman of the PPP in his hands, in violation of constitution and norms of democracy. He turned the presidential house into the headquarters of a political party, rather than maintaining it as symbol of federation and office of the head of the state.

Corruption

He squandered golden opportunities to make cardinal changes to the country’s foreign policy and national security which had always been under the control of the military establishment, despite the fact that Punjab’s strongest leader, Mian Nawaz Sharif, was ready to cooperate with him. Furthermore, he continuously challenged the supremacy of the judiciary and military establishments for his personal interests and to avoid risking sentencing by courts in couple of corruption cases.

Strangely, despite facing a number of corruption cases, he promoted corruption to record levels. During his term in office, Pakistani government was ranked among the top corrupt regimes in the world. The general consensus among the people throughout the last five years was that PPP was plundering national wealth with the belief that it was its last stint in the government.

He controlled all government powers and prime ministers were mere dummies. So much was his control that he used to allot ministries to the cabinet members. General consensus was that ministers used to calculate the daily, monthly and annual incomes of respective ministries before they were allotted those.

Interestingly, soon after the end of his presidency Zardari has once again promised the nation that he will undertake the mission of arresting and punishing the killers of Benazir Bhutto. He comfortably forgot this mission during his years as president despite having the best opportunities and resources to undertake and complete the promise. His close buddy Latif Khosa, who he made Governor of Punjab, also joined Zardari in raising the issue of Benazir’s killers’ arrest. Like Zardari, Khosa never made any progress with the promise despite being constitutional head of country’s biggest province.

Asif Zardari proved to be a shrewd and successful politician but never came close to becoming a statesman during his five years in presidency. He still has the time and chances to complete his political career with a similar level success that he achieved in completing his term as President of Pakistan, if he was to shun political maneuvering and display statesmanship.

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Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.