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Bhutto's Widower Expected To Win Presidency

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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