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Pakistan's Presidential Perils By: John R. Thomson
The Washington Times | Thursday, August 28, 2008

Perhaps it was wishful thinking. A few days ago, it could be hoped the resignation of Pervez Musharraf as Pakistan's president would usher in a period of military-supported reform of the country's weak, corrupt, democratically elected government.

However, announcement that Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), will seek election Sept. 6 as the next president is far from reassuring. Withdrawal from the government coalition's second-strongest member only increases the confusion and decline of the state.

The resignation of Mr. Musharraf, who as army chief had seized power in a bloodless 1999 coup that ousted corrupt, ineffective Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, potentially opened a window of opportunity to reform the weak, fractious, democratic government elected in February. Mr. Zardari, unfortunately, both head of his country's most powerful political party formerly led by his slain wife, ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and a notoriously corrupt figure, has the best chance to succeed Mr. Musharraf.

Mr. Zardari has been accused of countless illegal activities in Britain, Dubai, France, Poland, Switzerland (where he and Benazir were convicted of money laundering) and his native Pakistan. Although never convicted in Pakistan, he was imprisoned there for 11 years, and enjoys the distinction of being the longest imprisoned political leader in Pakistan's turbulent history.

When Benazir was assassinated in December 2007, less than three months after returning from eight years' exile, her widower, known as "Mr. 10 Percent" with a mediocre political record, was chosen to head the PPP jointly with his 20-year-old son, Bilawal, and led the party to a plurality victory in February's elections.

Mr. Zardari wisely decided not to push for the premiership in the resulting four-party coalition government, in which the leading partner was the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N), headed by the equally corrupt Mr. Sharif, who returned last November from eight years' exile.

However, the PPP leader has used the period since the party assumed power with his protege Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister, to organize a strong political base within the PPP and the Muttahida Quami Movement (United National Movement, known as MQM).

Pakistani presidents are elected indirectly by an electoral college made up of members of the Senate, National Assembly and the legislatures of the country's four provinces. In rapid succession, the PPP unanimously nominated Mr. Zardari as its candidate, the MQM followed suit and the Sindh provincial parliament (the country's largest) unanimously endorsed him. In short, with Mr. Musharraf out of the way, Asif Ali Zardari has positioned himself as the odds-on favorite to be Pakistan's 13th president.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML-N, and until now the PPP's principal coalition partner, does not support Mr. Zardari's presidential aspirations, but has found no candidate worthy - and sufficiently pliable - to support. Mr. Sharif reportedly believes Mr. Zardari will self-destruct within six months if elected, which could force new parliamentary elections in which the PML-N could expect strong support. His withdrawal of the PML-N from the coalition weakens the government and the chances Mr. Zardari might have had at a successful presidency.

In 2001, Mr. Sharif was banned by Pakistan's Supreme Court from politics for 21 years for unconstitutionally dismissing Mr. Musharraf and was separately sentenced to life imprisonment for hijacking, terrorism, corruption and tax evasion. In 2002, having served just three years' jail time, he was sent into exile in Saudi Arabia, returning five years later, a month following rival Benazir Bhutto's return. (Mr. Sharif gained controversial international notice in May 1998 when he ordered Pakistan's first nuclear explosions two weeks following India's detonation of five nuclear devices.)

Mr. Zardari could not have mounted his campaign in just 11 days following announcement of Mr. Musharraf's impending impeachment, which led to his Aug. 18 resignation. This clearly suggests the move to remove Mr. Musharraf was instigated by the Gilani government, with which Mr. Zardari is highly influential, rather than by extremist elements in the powerful Inter-Services Security Intelligence agency (ISI), as this analyst had earlier speculated.

If Mr. Zardari is successful, any serious chance for a stable, functioning government will have been lost for a protracted period. With an estimated 97 percent Muslim population, the 160 million inhabitants of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan make it the world's second-largest Muslim nation, with few obvious religious issues. However, the Muslim majority is not monolithic: nearly 80 percent are Sunni and 20 percent are the more contentious Shi'ite believers. The fundamentalist/extremist element is spreading from the rough Northwest Frontier Province bordering on Afghanistan to urban areas of the country. Besides religious issues, there are substantial and bitter ethnic, tribal, clan and linguistic differences.

In short, whoever becomes president of Pakistan next month will travel a rocky road, which will more than likely be traversed by a classic, crony politician, paying and playing one callous colleague off after another. Two telling negative signposts: foreign investment has all but disappeared in the last year of national turmoil, and just last weekend the International Cricket Council postponed for at least one year the Champions' Trophy scheduled for September, owing to concerns about suicide bombings. The trophy involves top national teams from around the world. In cricket-crazed Pakistan, this delay is nearly as disastrous as if China had postponed the Olympics.

There is some good news in all this, however. The major political parties are firmly secular and - at least until now - have evidenced strong interest in keeping the country's extremist elements firmly at bay, if not eliminating them. It was under Prime Minister Gilani, guided by Mr. Zardari, that the Pakistani army undertook its major offensive, still in progress in the Northwest Frontier Province. The politicians in Islamabad recognize the threat from al Qaeda in Pakistan, the local Taliban and their Afghani cohorts seeking refuge in the unruly border province.

Equally important, the establishment politicians have strongly favored comprehensive control of Pakistan's nuclear facilities, which, if in the hands of extremists, would pose a dire threat, regionally and worldwide.

Pakistanis, Muslims and the world deserve better. Sadly, their main chance would be a quiet, yet clear, message from widely respected army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, that the parties must select a president above the polluted political fray. Unfortunately, the deadline for filing presidential nomination papers, Aug. 26, provides virtually no constitutional chance for this option.

Gen. Kayani appears to be following his own dictum to fellow officers following February's elections that the military must stand "behind the democratic process" and remain "committed to playing its constitutional role," which at least is better than a fifth period of military rule.

John R. Thomson, an international businessman and former diplomat, writes frequently on developing world issues.

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