Bhutto's Widower Expected To Win Presidency

In Pakistan, lawmakers will select the country's next president Saturday. Asif Ali Zardari is the frontrunner to succeed President Pervez Musharraf, who resigned under pressure last month. Zardari took over the Pakistan Peoples Party after his wife and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

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A man once better known for his polo skills than his politics is about to get a big job in Pakistan. The national and provincial parliaments elect a president tomorrow, and it's widely expected the job will go to Benazir Bhutto's widower. Asif Ali Zardari took over a leading political party after Bhutto's death. The party won elections earlier this year but that did not end the controversy surrounding Zardari, and neither would the victory that he is hoping for tomorrow.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from the capital, Islamabad.

PHILIP REEVES: We're a few hundred yards from the presidential palace that Asif Ali Zardari is hoping will soon be his. Smiling confidently, Zardari's face shines out from a large poster hanging from a fence. Not for much longer. Tamu Achima(ph), a smartly-dressed young banker, is covering it up.

Why are you putting this on Mr. Zardari's face?

Mr. TAMU ACHIMA (Banker): Because nobody likes him. Nobody likes him. You (unintelligible) anybody in the street. Nobody likes him.

REEVES: Why not?

Mr. ACHIMA: He has never been with a good reputation.

REEVES: Politics in Pakistan is a rough business. Allegations of skullduggery fly thick and fast. The debate over whether Zardari should be president has been unusually candid.

Zardari's held office before; he's been a government minister and a member of parliament. But his real rise to power began with the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, in December. In February he led Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party to a resounding election victory and formed a coalition government with the runners-up, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Since then it's been heavy going. The partnership with Sharif has collapsed; Zardari has been unable to shake off questions about his character.

Mr. SHEPCAP MAHMOUD(ph) (Political Commentator): I was close to both Benazir and the family. So I know him quite well.

REEVES: That's Shepcap Mahmoud, a leading political commentator who used to be a senior member of the Pakistan Peoples Party.

Mr. MAHMOUD: There has never been a time when there wasn't some kind of controversy surrounding him. Among the - for want of a better word I'd call intelligencia - there is definitely a feeling that he is involved in many, you know, things which were not right, particularly cases of making money.

REEVES: Money lies at the core of most of the allegations leveled against Zardari. Over the years he's been accused of money laundering, extortion and taking huge kickbacks for government contracts. He's also been accused of playing a role in the murder of one of his wife's brothers. Zardari spent more than 11 years in jail in Pakistan but was never convicted.

Mr. BABA AHWEN(ph) (Party Colleague and Friend of Zardari): Nobody should be damned as an accused or a crooked person unless proven guilty.

REEVES: Baba Ahwen is a close party colleague and friend of Zardari's. Ahwen says the charges against Zardari were part of a politically motivated smear campaign and should now be forgotten. He also says the Pakistan Peoples Party's victory in the polls in February means that unlike the previous president, Pervez Musharraf, Zardari actually has a mandate.

Mr. AHWEN: Does Pakistan not deserve to have a popular political leader democratically elected? Why people should lose that right?

REEVES: Pakistan's president is elected by the national and provincial parliaments. Two other candidates are running.

(Soundbite of people talking)

REEVES: One of them is Mushahid Hussain, a member of a party that used to support Musharraf.

Mr. MUSHAHID HUSSAIN (Candidate for President): I've run a campaign with a difference. My role model is the former world heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, the underdog who came from behind.

REEVES: Hussain's trying to lay punches on Zardari by suggesting the country's heading for one-man rule by the head of the Bhutto dynasty.

Mr. HUSSAIN: Mr. Zardari already is the party boss. Mr. Zardari already is the de facto prime minister. He's the de facto finance minister. He's the economic czar. He's the principle purveyor of patronage.

REEVES: Remember, says Mushahid Hussain, Pakistan has nuclear weapons and its president is technically supreme commander of the armed forces.

Recently, the presidential election contest took an unexpected twist. The media came up with some court documents filed by Zardari's lawyers, stating he had been diagnosed with depression, post-traumatic stress and dementia - the result of years in prison. The papers were submitted in an effort to postpone a court hearing in London.

Hussain seized on this issue as a chance to take another swing at Zardari.

Mr. HUSSAIN: He should come out with a statement clearly specifying that he is mentally sound, mentally fit to hold that office.

REEVES: However, political analyst Shepcap Mahmoud believes claims about Zardari's mental illness aren't taken seriously in Pakistan.

Mr. MAHMOUD: It's very common in Pakistani court systems that to avoid appearances in court you produce medical search certificates that are not really kosher. So people look at that as a tactic rather than thinking that, you know, this man is suffering from dementia.

REEVES: Baba Ahwen, Zardari's party colleague, was in prison at the same time as Zardari.

Mr. AHWEN: If you are incarcerated, certain amount of pressure upon you can cause some sort of certain ailment for a certain period of time, which does not disable the person mentally.

REEVES: Ahwen believes Zardari's recovered from any mental problems he may have suffered because of that experience and would make a highly competent president.

(Soundbite of protest)

REEVES: A group of lawyers, clad in black suits, gathered outside parliament in Islamabad. They're calling for the restoration of judges sacked by Musharraf. Pakistan's legal community played a crucial role in bringing about Musharraf's downfall. For week after week they took to the streets, demanding the general restore the judges, step down and allow democratic elections.

After winning those elections, Zardari promised to give the judges their jobs back but he didn't do it. Most Pakistani commentators think Zardari's worried the restored judges would overturn a law giving him amnesty over corruption allegations. Now many lawyers see Zardari as their enemy.

(Soundbite of protest)

REEVES: Exel Assan(ph) leads the lawyers' campaign.

Mr. EXEL ASSAN: Well, obviously the lawyers believe and think that since Mr. Zardari signed formal documents promising to restore the judges within a given timeframe and that was not done, many of the lawyers consider that he is the stumbling block.

REEVES: Hostility from Pakistan's lawyers would only be one of the challenges facing Zardari as president. Pakistan's currency has plummeted to a record low. Inflation's well into double figures. A wave of violence by Islamist militants is sweeping the country's northwest. There's deep public anger over American military strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt. Zardari's seen as a firm supporter of the U.S.

Zardari's been talking about national reconciliation, but Shepcap Mahmoud believes if he's elected tomorrow, Zardari may not find it easy to convince Pakistanis to rally around him.

Mr. MAHMOUD: Mr. Zardari has a huge image problem to tackle. He will have to demonstrate that he's a better person than people give him credit for; that he's a good, decent man and that he has the potential to lead this nation.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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Presidency Bid By Bhutto's Widower Controversial

Asif Ali Zardari i i

The widower of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, is running for president, despite a controversial background. Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images
Asif Ali Zardari

The widower of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, is running for president, despite a controversial background.

Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Complete Coverage

The widower of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto could become the country's next president when parliament votes on Saturday.

But if he does, Asif Ali Zardari will have to overcome a career lashed by allegations of corruption, extortion, murder and mental illness. Though he has never been convicted in Pakistan, Zardari has spent more than a decade in prison on various charges.

Zardari and his son, Bilawal, became co-leaders of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, the PPP, after she was assassinated by a bomb blast in December 2007. The party won the most seats in a parliamentary election in February, and Zardari was able to form a coalition government with his wife's former rival, former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The coalition came unglued just five months later, after President Pervez Musharraf stepped down under threat of impeachment. Sharif pulled his party out of the government after Zardari failed to keep a pledge to reinstate more than 60 judges who were fired by Musharraf last year.

Zardari then filed to run for president in the vote set for Sept. 6. Pakistan's president is chosen by parliament and the country's four regional assemblies. Zardari's spokesman said he has the votes to defeat two other candidates for the post.

Criminal Allegations

Through much of his career, the 53-year-old Zardari would have seemed an unlikely candidate for president. He grew up in Karachi, the son of a prominent Pakistani politician. Before his marriage to Bhutto in 1987, he was known for little more than his successes as a polo player.

During his wife's two terms as prime minister, Zardari was dubbed "Mr. 10 Percent," based on allegations that he demanded that percentage from businessmen seeking government contracts.

In 1990, Zardari was accused in an extortion plot, in which he allegedly strapped a bomb to the leg of a businessman, threatening to set it off by remote control if the man didn't withdraw payoff money from his bank account. Zardari was arrested, but never tried. He was released from prison after the PPP won elections in 1993.

Zardari was arrested again in 1997 on charges that included instigating the assassination of his brother-in-law, Mir Murtaza Bhutto. He was also charged with corruption, including taking millions of dollars in bribes for military contracts and helping to give a gold dealer a monopoly on importing gold into Pakistan.

None of these charges was ever tested in a Pakistani court, but Zardari spent another eight years in prison, during which, he says, he was tortured. In the meantime, a money-laundering case against Zardari and Benazir Bhutto made its way through the Swiss courts, alleging that the two had passed tens of millions of dollars through Swiss banks in an effort to conceal the fact that the money came from bribes.

Cases Have Been Dropped

In August of this year, the case was dropped, and a Swiss court released about $60 million in Zardari's assets that had been frozen. The court said Pakistan's government had withdrawn its request for judicial assistance from Switzerland. The returned money raised new questions about Zardari's financial dealings, and why he had failed to disclose those assets or pay taxes on them.

Investigations of Zardari and Bhutto's involvement in contracting have also been launched in France and Poland.

Opponents claim that Zardari has been reluctant to reinstate fired judges because he fears that an independent judiciary will pursue the corruption charges against him.

Zardari's supporters say that all the charges against him were politically motivated, first as an effort to discredit his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and later as a means of keeping him from rising to political prominence himself. They say he has proven to be a remarkably astute leader, guiding the PPP through the chaotic period after Bhutto's murder.

Efforts to forestall a corruption probe against Zardari in England led to the disclosure that he was diagnosed in 2007 as suffering from mild dementia, depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome. The diagnoses, made by two New York psychiatrists, were included in court documents filed by Zardari's lawyers with the English High Court.

A spokesman for Zardari later told the Times of London that Zardari had made a full recovery and received a clean bill of health after recent medical tests.

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