- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan | This week’s collapse of a pact granting immunity from corruption charges to Asif Ali Zardari has abruptly weakened the president’s chances of becoming the first civilian leader in Pakistan’s 62-year history to finish a term in office.

Mr. Zardari’s problems also have implications for the United States, which is counting on Pakistan to fight the Taliban on its side of the Afghan border as President Obama prepares to send tens of thousands of additional American troops to Afghanistan.

Mr. Zardari fired back at his critics Wednesday at a political rally in Karachi, marking the 42nd anniversary of his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). “To those who are trying to bring down this government, I will say that all your efforts will be in vain,” he said.

At issue is a decree - now of dubious legality - called the National Reconciliation Ordinance, or NRO.

The agreement was signed in October 2007 by then-President Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, Mr. Zardari’s wife, who was subsequently assassinated. It allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan without fearing prosecution on corruption charges stemming from her two stints as prime minister.

“NRO was the need of the time, since Bhutto would not have returned without the assurances provided by this decree and without her presence, the elections would not have had legitimacy,” analyst Hassan Askari said.

Bhutto was forced from office during both her terms because of corruption charges. When she was assassinated in late December 2007, shortly after returning to Pakistan from exile, Mr. Zardari took over leadership of her party and was elected president by parliament in September 2008.

The text of the NRO, which applied to thousands of individuals, said its purpose was to “promote national reconciliation, foster mutual trust and confidence amongst holders of public office and remove the vestiges of political vendetta and victimization.”

But the pact turned out to be a nightmare in disguise when Mr. Zardari asked parliament to enact the decree into law. The opposition, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, responded with a full-fledged campaign against it, forcing Mr. Zardari to back down this week.

The agreement granted more than 8,000 government bureaucrats and politicians, including Mr. Zardari and many others from his party, immunity from a host of corruption and criminal charges.

Over the weekend, the government released the list of some of those who had been protected by the decree, including the interior and defense ministers. Those listed have protested their innocence against what they deem politically motivated charges filed by a military-led investigative body from 1986 to 1999. Many have expressed a willingness to fight in court.

Mr. Zardari - still known as “Mr. 10 Percent” for unproven allegations of graft while he served as a minister in his wife’s administrations - is accused of building an illegal polo ground at the prime minister’s residence, money laundering in a Swiss banking case and receiving kickbacks from various deals.

“His name on this list, and the lengthy list of charges against him, further affects his standing,” said political analyst Asadullah Ghalib, “and deals yet another blow to his tottering popularity.”

Mr. Zardari denies all wrongdoing.

Prominent politicians affected include the former chief minister of North West Frontier Province, Aftab Ahmed Sherpao.

When contacted by The Washington Times, Mr. Sherpao denied all charges against him and said he was “willing to go to court to prove his innocence.”

“It was a shock to see my name in this list. I have no knowledge of the cases against me,” he said.

Mr. Zardari still enjoys immunity in his role as president. But there has been speculation that Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who is no ally, could rule that Mr. Zardari was not eligible to run in the first place since the NRO was never passed into law.

It was Chief Justice Chaudhry’s Supreme Court declaration earlier this year finding the decree unconstitutional that prompted Mr. Zardari to take it to parliament.

“There are fine lines and hairsplitting arguments as to whether he was eligible to conduct elections,” Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, told the Associated Press. “If that case of eligibility goes to the court, he could have a problem and be ousted that way.”

If forced from office before the end of his five-year term, Mr. Zardari would join a long line of civilian leaders, including Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was overthrown as prime minister in a military coup and executed.

Mr. Sharif was also dismissed as prime minister twice, the second time in a 1999 coup by the then-army chief, Gen. Musharraf. For most of its history, Pakistan has been ruled by generals who seized power.

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