Making History by Finishing a Presidential Term ; in Pakistain, Zardari Is First Elected Head of State to Serve Full Tenure

By Walsh, Declan | International Herald Tribune, September 10, 2013 | Go to article overview

Making History by Finishing a Presidential Term ; in Pakistain, Zardari Is First Elected Head of State to Serve Full Tenure


Walsh, Declan, International Herald Tribune


When President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan quietly gave up his post, the seemingly banal images of his final day represented a quiet victory. He became the country's first elected president to complete his term.

Smoking an electronic cigarette and casually stooping to feed his cat, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan cut a relaxed figure in a television interview. Later, he strolled from the presidential palace while flanked by soldiers in gleaming uniforms, in a mark of honor for his last day at work.

For the departing president, whose many critics had anticipated other endings, those seemingly banal images on Sunday represented a quiet victory.

Over his five years in power, Mr. Zardari fended off threat after threat. Senior judges sought to unseat him through corruption prosecutions. Generals murmured to diplomats about the possibility of a coup. The Taliban vowed to kill him. And large portions of the Pakistani news media and public seemed to revel in ridiculing or condemning him.

He leaves with the Pakistani economy a shambles, and with the once-mighty political machine he still leads, the Pakistan People's Party, in disarray after a crushing election defeat.

Yet for all that, Mr. Zardari, 58, has also confounded expectations. He bolstered Pakistan's democracy by draining his own office of power. He became the country's first elected president to complete his term of office. He shifted the tone of politics, eschewing bare-knuckles confrontation for a more accommodating approach.

And, perhaps thanks to the instincts that were honed during his 11 years in prison before becoming president, he displayed political wiles that enabled him to outmaneuver the steeliest rivals and simply survive.

"Love him or hate him, one can never underestimate President Zardari," wrote Kamal Siddiqi, editor of the daily newspaper The Express Tribune.

Mr. Zardari's departure from office comes at the midpoint of a broader changing of the guard this year in the top echelons of Pakistan's turbulent power structures. In June, his longtime political rival, Nawaz Sharif, became prime minister after a sweeping election victory. In November, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is due to step down; weeks later, the formidable chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, is to be replaced.

The new president, Mamnoon Hussain of Mr. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, was sworn in on Monday, The Associated Press reported.

"This is an era of great change," said Adil Najam, a professor of international relations at Boston University. "Zardari's achievement is to walk away from high power with a smile on his face -- not going out in a coffin, or in handcuffs, or in disgrace."

For long, though, he struggled to achieve political legitimacy.

Catapulted into office in 2008 by the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, Mr. Zardari arrived already burdened by a reputation for corruption. Not only did the military dislike him, but he was also viewed with suspicion by many supporters of his own party as the accidental inheritor of a storied political dynasty.

After early efforts to assert his authority in the face of the military failed abjectly, he largely receded from public view. Much of that was due to security concerns, as a fierce Taliban bombing offensive struck major cities, killing thousands. He often remained cloistered in Islamabad, worried about his security, occasionally darting to the airport for state trips abroad, or to his second home in Dubai.

He displayed a leaden sensibility toward public opinion -- for instance, continuing a vacation at his parents' estate in France in August 2010 as huge floods inundated the country and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Those mistakes were seized upon by the increasingly influential electronic media, which treated Mr. Zardari with hostility and, for a time, regularly predicted his downfall. He was openly mocked, and his personal life was attacked with insinuations. …

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