8 September 2009
Farzana Shaikh

Dr Farzana Shaikh

Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


In a newspaper column published in Pakistan to mark the first anniversary of President Asif Ali Zardari's term in office a fawning pro-government adviser called on readers to hail this 'lonely father facing the mother of all troubles'. If opinion polls are anything to go by, few in Pakistan are likely to demonstrate their sympathy for a man they still regard as tainted by allegations of corruption and political double-dealing. Yet it would be difficult to deny that today President Zardari occupies an unenviable status.

It has been a turbulent year for Pakistan's accidental president. Better known for cutting shady business deals than conducting the affairs of state in the full glare of publicity, Zardari was unexpectedly thrust into the limelight following the brutal assassination of his wife, the immensely popular former minister and leader of the Pakistan People's Party, Benazir Bhutto. Since then his meteoric rise to the highest and most powerful office in the land has defied even seasoned analysts of Pakistan.

There is no doubt that being married to a national icon like Bhutto did play a significant part in propelling Zardari to stardom. Within days of her killing he had assumed control of a party stunned by the loss of its leader and overcome by the scale of her family's personal tragedy. Many at the time also feared that to mount an open challenge against Zardari would almost certainly split the party and ruin its prospects of a return to power after years in the political wilderness.

But while this calculation may well have ensured the party's electoral victory in February 2008, it exacted a heavy price from the country. With the help of his closest associates and the tacit support of the major Western powers, notably the United States, Zardari tightened his grip on the party and made a controversial bid for the presidency. His gamble paid off. Freed from the need to convince a mass electorate of his qualifications for the job - the president is indirectly elected by an Electoral College - Zardari skilfully deployed his talents as a deal-maker to emerge with a handsome victory in September 2008.

But expectations that his election would herald a period of relative stability for Pakistan have not been met. The political climate still seethes with acrimony fuelled by hostility between Zardari and his chief rival and contender for the throne, former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The economy is hobbled by debt while across the country millions are reeling from the effects of crippling electricity shortages and an unprecedented scarcity of essential commodities, including sugar and wheat.

And what of the outcome of President Zardari's greatest test - the war against Islamic militancy? Much has been made of his success in enforcing what he likes to describe as 'the writ of the state' in regions wracked by Islamist violence. Yet, the president's palpable reluctance to venture too far beyond the boundaries of his presidential palace, except to head abroad, suggests that his real authority may be more tenuous than many have been led to believe.

Is it any wonder then that even as President Zardari appears to confidently move towards the second year of his five-year term, rumors abound of plans to implement a so-called 'minus-one formula' aimed at forcing him from office. But with the president's gleaming white teeth still regularly on show, the question on everybody's mind is: will Zardari have the last laugh?

*This article was originally read on the BBC World Service on 8 September 2009.