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Is Pakistan’s new leader up to the job?

Times Staff Writer

Only a year ago, Asif Ali Zardari was best known as the husband of Benazir Bhutto, a highflying businessman with a taste for fine living, polo and, his critics allege, bribes. He was a man who spent 11 years in jail while awaiting trial on unproven corruption charges, the stress of which, according to court papers filed by doctors last year and viewed by a British newspaper, induced bouts of dementia and depression.

Today, Zardari is the leader of this nuclear-armed country, a nation crucial to the security of the United States but one beset by an internal crisis whose outcome could, some say, determine whether Pakistan stands or falls as a modern Muslim state.

Just three weeks into his presidency, Zardari is facing an unprecedented challenge from Islamic extremists, who blew up the Marriott Hotel here in the Pakistani capital in a brazen suicide attack that killed at least 53 people. He is now under enormous pressure to improve security for his people and rescue a flailing economy.

Most delicate of all, he must find a way to cooperate with Washington in its war on Islamic militants without seeming to be bossed around by it or, worse, ignored as U.S. troops based in Afghanistan increasingly make forays against insurgents on Pakistani soil.

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Whether Zardari is up to such a difficult task is a question on the minds of many of his compatriots, who wonder whether he has the charisma, clout and capability to rise above party politics and his personal interests for the sake of the nation.

Few Pakistanis can forget that Zardari, 53, is an accidental president, thrust onto center stage after Bhutto, a former prime minister, was assassinated in December by extremists. Zardari took the helm of his wife’s Pakistan People’s Party, which emerged as the biggest winner at the polls in February, and was elected president by lawmakers this month after the resignation of Pervez Musharraf.

From the beginning, Zardari pledged to unite the country and to bring back the rule of law, including the reseating of a number of judges sacked by Musharraf in an apparent bid to stay in power.

But Zardari has so far failed to deliver fully on those promises, leaving lawmakers divided and hostile at a time when unity is needed more than ever as Pakistan struggles to contain the burgeoning threat of Islamic militancy within its borders.

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U.S. looms large

Sending troops in search of extremists, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, soldiers and suspected militants, has proved unpopular with many Pakistanis, who see Zardari as obeying the dictates of the U.S.

Even more infuriating to them are the U.S. military strikes in Pakistan from across the rugged, poorly marked border with Afghanistan, including an alleged incursion Thursday in which Pakistani and American troops briefly exchanged fire.

“This is a moment of national crisis for Pakistan,” said Farzana Shaikh, an expert on South Asia at Chatham House, a British think tank. “Mr. Zardari should call on the support of parties across the political spectrum. It’s only by being seen to forge a national consensus that Mr. Zardari could then claim that Pakistan is fighting a war that is as much in its own interests as the interests of the United States.”

Instead of shoring up support from his opponents, Zardari’s refusal to reinstate the nation’s popular former chief justice, whom Musharraf fired, has led to a rupture with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N party, the only real rival to the PPP. Sharif pulled his party out of a coalition government over the issue.

“The new government has been far more engaged in political wrangling, in trying to outmaneuver . . . Sharif’s party and trying to consolidate its own position rather than attending to the far more pressing problems of militancy and the economy,” Shaikh said.

That has hardened perceptions of Zardari as a political schemer and opportunist rather than an inspirational leader dedicated to the greater good.

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Many Pakistanis still regard him as a venal wheeler-dealer whose bank accounts suspiciously bloomed during his wife’s two terms as premier. His nickname was “Mr. 10%,” a reference to his allegedly crooked business practices. He was jailed twice, following each of his wife’s terms as prime minister, spending a total of 11 years behind bars on corruption charges. He says the charges, which were never proved, were politically motivated.

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Mental illness cited

Corruption charges were lodged against Zardari in several countries, including Britain, where he was able to delay legal proceedings because of diagnoses from two American doctors last year describing him as mentally ill, according to court affidavits seen by the Financial Times newspaper.

Such incidents have made people skeptical about him as their president.

“Is he a new Mr. Zardari, or is he the Zardari of the past?” asked Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “That question is not yet settled, or the question of will he rise to the occasion and lead Pakistan out of crisis.”

Rais and others see an opening, in the aftermath of the Marriott bombing, for Zardari to turn public outrage to his advantage, using it to rally the nation behind the fight against Islamic militants. Until now, opponents of that fight have succeeded in painting it as America’s war, not Pakistan’s.

But whether Zardari has the ability to rally such fervor is uncertain. His wife had charisma to spare, the ability to rouse thousands of people through impassioned speeches and soaring rhetoric that, if not always based in reality, rarely failed to inspire. Zardari is seen as more of a backroom dealer, a political insider who lacks mass appeal.

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“It’s a battle of hearts and minds,” said author Ahmed Rashid. “He should go to the people. The party should be galvanized. He should meet with the opposition. There should be a consideration of a national government at this stage because of the crisis, and they should unite on one platform, which should be an anti-terror platform, which should be portrayed as a struggle to save Pakistan, not a struggle to save America.”

Not all the problems facing Zardari are of his making.

The economy has been languishing for months. Foreign investment is down. Food prices are up. Frequent power outages have soured people’s moods.

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Cozying up to Palin

On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting last week, Zardari was busy trying to drum up international aid for his battered nation. Yet as Pakistanis still reeled from one of the worst terrorist attacks in their country’s history, he also found time for a chat of questionable propriety with Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, in which he openly admired her looks and said he might insist on giving her a hug.

Such coziness with the U.S. is unlikely to endear him to a populace already inclined to view his government as a lap dog of Washington.

Zardari, analysts say, needs to concentrate on convincing his people that going hard after Islamic militants, such as those who carried out the attack on the Marriott, is in Pakistan’s own interest. Those people include some of the military rank and file, who find it difficult to fight their fellow Pakistanis. In a country that has spent half its existence under military rule, Zardari, as a civilian leader, still maintains only tenuous control of the army.

“If the military doesn’t do what he wants it to do, he doesn’t have sovereignty,” said Stephen Cohen, an expert on Pakistan at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “He’s been elected president, but that’s meaningless.”

At the same time, Zardari has had to convince the United States of his commitment to eliminating extremism, particularly from the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who have set up bases along the lawless border with Afghanistan. The U.S. incursions from Afghanistan into Pakistan have added to the tension between Washington and Islamabad and worsened anti-American sentiment here.

It will take a leader of stature and savvy to unknot these difficulties and pull the country together. The jury is out as to whether Zardari is the man to do it.

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henry.chu@latimes.com


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