- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008

Asif Ali Zardari is unpopular among many Pakistanis. He has been called corrupt, arrogant, inexperienced and, most recently, mentally ill. But in the six months since his party-led coalition came to power, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has strengthened his position with shrewd maneuvers expected to culminate in his election as president on Saturday.

The key question for U.S. policymakers is whether Mr. Zardari, 53, can bring stability to a country that has become a base both for the U.S.-led war on terrorism and for militants menacing Pakistan and the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

Mrs. Bhutto, who opposed Islamist extremism, fell to terrorists’ bullets in December within weeks of returning home from exile. On Wednesday, Pakistan’s prime minister escaped an assassination attempt. Mr. Zardari - who is all but certain to be elected president by Pakistan’s parliament and four provincial assemblies - has backed U.S. policies, thereby exposing himself to similar terrorist threats.

U.S. officials have taken pains to stress that Washington is not taking sides in Pakistani politics - after the New York Times reported last month that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had offered Mr. Zardari “help and advice.”

“Our policy is to stay out of Pakistan’s internal affairs,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters last week. “Pakistan is a close ally. … The United States is there to support Pakistan as it tries to … further consolidate its democracy.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Khalilzad defended his dealings with Pakistani officials as mere social contacts. “I have not provided [Mr. Zardari] with any advice,” he told reporters at the United Nations.

For a man who has never before held elected office, Mr. Zardari has moved nimbly in recent months. He chose a little-known member of his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Yousuf Raza Gilani, as prime minister while remaining powerful behind the scenes. In a coalition with a longtime rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Mr. Zardari forced out President Pervez Musharraf, who, under U.S. pressure, had allowed the Bhutto family to return from exile.

As president, Mr. Zardari would inherit powers assumed by Mr. Musharraf to fire the prime minister and the Cabinet and dissolve parliament and state legislatures. But that does not necessarily assure long-term stability in a country that has suffered frequent military coups since independence in 1947.

Corruption charges and volatile political realignments could bring a quick shift in the balance of power.

With high inflation and low employment, the economy could become Mr. Zardari’s biggest test.

“Once the survival of the government is settled, it can focus on the pressing issues such as fighting Taliban-led insurgency and the weak economy,” said Teresita C. Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former U.S. envoy to Pakistan. “But Zardari is at best untested as a leader and is a relative newcomer to government and electoral politics.”

The military lurks in the background, and Ms. Schaffer said the army does not trust Mr. Zardari.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and presidential adviser on South Asia and now a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, said Mr. Zardari has shown “impressive political skill” by getting rid of Mr. Musharraf “with no violence or trouble from the army,” having his man in the prime minister’s office and claiming the presidency.

“What he doesn’t control, however, is the army or [the Inter-Services Intelligence agency]. … So he will be able to govern only on those issues the army lets him tackle.”

Mr. Zardari and his son, Bilawal, a student at Britain’s Oxford University, were elected co-chairmen of the PPP soon after Mrs. Bhutto’s assassination. The party got the largest number of seats in parliament in February elections, but had to form a coalition with Mr. Sharif’s party.

The coalition began to unravel over the question of who would succeed Mr. Musharraf and Mr. Sharif’s demand to restore the chief justice of the Supreme Court and dozens of other judges removed by Mr. Musharraf.

Mr. Sharif, who has decided to mount “constructive opposition” for now, has been growing in popularity while Pakistani newspapers have portrayed Mr. Zardari as a manipulator who broke his promises to Mr. Sharif.

In a column in The Washington Post on Thursday, Mr. Zardari pledged to “amend the constitution to bring back into balance the powers of the president” and restore to the bench the judges dismissed by Mr. Musharraf.

Many Pakistanis are skeptical.

“His conduct so far has not been inspiring at all,” said former newspaper editor and political analyst Rashid Rehman. “He’s been making commitments, then breaking them and pooh-poohing signed documents. This is not what one would wish to see in a president.”

“A president should stick to his word,” said Mahrukh Ali, 30, a businesswoman in Lahore. “Imagine having a president who means one thing and says another.”

Corruption accusations continue to shadow Mr. Zardari.

During the 1990s, as a minister for investments and the environment in Mrs. Bhutto’s government, Mr. Zardari came to be known as “Mr. 10 percent” over allegations he sought commissions for government contracts.

Mr. Zardari spent several years in Pakistani jails, but was never convicted of any corruption charge. An amnesty deal with Mr. Musharraf this year closed the investigations. Last month, prosecutors in Switzerland said they were closing their probe and unfreezing $60 million in bank deposits.

Britain’s Financial Times newspaper also reported last month that Mr. Zardari’s attorneys had claimed he was suffering from severe psychological problems caused by torture he suffered in prison.

In court documents in Britain filed last year, Mr. Zardari’s doctors said their patient had been diagnosed with a range of serious illnesses, including dementia and post-traumatic stress disorder, the newspaper reported.

The report triggered a debate in Pakistan over whether Mr. Zardari was fit to become president, but his party quickly dismissed it.

“All these are baseless accusations being spread by anti-Pakistan forces,” said Aziz-u-Rehman Chan, the Lahore president of the PPP. “Mr. Zardari is as fit as can be.”

As the date of the elections neared, an anti-Zardari campaign by cell-phone text messages and e-mails spread in Pakistani cities. One popular text message read: “Everything can be straightened out - even a dog’s tail - but not Zardari.”

“Musharraf became unpopular after nine years of rule. Zardari is unpopular starting out,” said Asadullah Ghalib, a columnist for the Daily Express, a national Urdu newspaper.

Ayesha Nasir in Lahore, Pakistan, contributed to this article.

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