The Future of the PPP — and Pakistan — is in the Hands of Asif Zardari


He is no one’s idea of a Bhutto—not as polished, not as charismatic, not as eloquent as his late wife or her father.

But somehow, Asif Ali Zardari, dogged by rumors of corruption but not the Bhutto name, the family legacy but not popular legitimacy, has to rally the supporters of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, and lead the most popular political party in Pakistan. If not, the party could crumble.

“She leaves that to me in her will,” said Zardari, 53, who insists he will be buried next to his wife, who was killed after a campaign rally in a bomb and gun attack Dec. 27. “It is my job now to go out and fight these fundamentalist forces that are threatening our country.”

The future of the Pakistan People’s Party will help determine the future of Pakistan, which has struggled in the past year with a growing Islamic insurgency along its border with Afghanistan, a demoralized army and a political crisis that threatens to bring down President Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror.

Because of widespread discontent with Musharraf and sympathy for the party after the death of Bhutto, many expect People’s Party candidates to sweep parliamentary elections Feb. 18—if the elections are fair.

If the center-left People’s Party and other opposition parties gain enough votes, they could band together to oust Musharraf, who has become extremely unpopular in recent months. This would have dramatic repercussions in Pakistan, the only Islamic nation known to have nuclear weapons, and ultimately could lead to more instability and new leaders who might not be as receptive to American wishes as Musharraf, who gained power while army chief after a bloodless coup in 1999.

But Bhutto’s death also leaves her party without a leader who has a national following. If supporters desert the People’s Party, its base could be reduced to Bhutto and Zardari’s home of Sindh province, turning it from a national to a regional political power—something that would simplify Musharraf’s efforts to cling to power.

In an 80-minute interview last week, Zardari insisted he would be able to keep the Pakistan People’s Party together with the help of other party leaders and his 19-year-old son, Bilawal, the ceremonial head of the party, now a student at Oxford University.

Zardari said Bhutto was his soul mate, although some of Bhutto’s friends say the marriage had become one of political convenience.

He got tears in his eyes while talking about his wife. He still carries her BlackBerry with him in his pocket because he doesn’t want to admit she’s gone, he said, and he sends messages to party leaders from the BlackBerry.

His first message: “I learnt that you were one of those fortunate persons with whom she often communicated through this instrument for furthering the cause for which she so valiantly stood, fought for and ultimately laid down her life.” Zardari, not a candidate in the parliamentary elections, refused to say whom the party would nominate to be prime minister if it wins the most seats, saying it would decide after the results.

He also refused to say whether his party would be willing to work with Musharraf, although he referred to the largest pro-government political party as “the killer league” in the days after her death, and many people hold the government at least partly responsible. Zardari said party members—including the rank and file—would decide about working with Musharraf after the election.

But Zardari also said he still believes a government conspiracy was behind her death, which the government and the CIA blame on militants linked to Al Qaeda, and he called again for an independent UN investigation. Zardari said he hadn’t met with Musharraf nor any emissary in recent weeks, despite rumors of negotiations, and left little doubt about how he feels about the president.

“He will be remembered as one of the worst-ever leaders of Pakistan,” Zardari said.

Many supporters worry that Zardari and Musharraf might sign a deal, though, especially considering that Bhutto had negotiated a deal last year with Musharraf despite her party’s historic stance against military rule. Some party leaders said privately they would leave the party if Zardari signed up with Musharraf. Others said there was no way the People’s Party and Musharraf could work together at this point.

“No way am I prepared to compromise with Musharraf,” said Nawab Yusuf Talpur, a member of the party’s central executive committee.

In many ways, Zardari is an unlikely choice to lead the Pakistan People’s Party. He was once considered a playboy, a polo-playing businessman who loved booze, women and discos, a husband unworthy of an arranged marriage in 1987 with the worldly and sober Bhutto.

Even during her two aborted terms as prime minister in the late 1980s and mid-1990s, Zardari was considered crude and abrasive. He once crossed his legs and showed the sole of his shoe to the Saudi king, a move thought to be so uncouth that people in Pakistan still talk about it. And some Bhutto allies say Zardari tainted her reputation with questionable business dealings.

Zardari spent 111/2 years behind bars on corruption and murder charges, though he was never convicted and several charges were thrown out of court. He went into exile after being released in 2004.

Party leaders say the corruption charges were politically motivated, used by the establishment to discredit political leaders.

“Mr. Zardari has been the target of rumor and innuendo for two decades,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokeswoman for the party. “None of these cases have been proved to this day.”

But several party loyalists close to Bhutto said Zardari traded on his influence with Bhutto and worked through partners, charging people commissions of 10 to 20 percent for government business, or even refusing to pay for small items such as meals. Throughout the country, he was known as “Mr. 10 Percent.”

Outside Pakistan, a property case in Britain and a money laundering case in Switzerland continue to raise questions about why the couple moved money overseas through networks of secretive offshore companies and trusts and where the money came from.

Yet the new Zardari—the one who returned to Pakistan after his wife was killed—is a different man, supporters say. He is charming. He is well-spoken. He is less arrogant. And unlike his wife, who ruled the party almost like a queen, Zardari is inclusive, holding meetings of leaders and asking for advice.

“She could get away with anything,” said one party leader, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “He has got flexibility, which is so welcome.”

Zardari has little choice but to be flexible. People are wary of him, and he knows it. Party supporters have known only a Bhutto, either Benazir or her father or mother, in the 40 years of the party’s history. They were willing to die for her, wore T-shirts saying they would die to protect her, and when she returned on Oct. 18 from eight years of exile, many did, in a suicide blast that killed about 140 people.

As leaders debated who would lead the party three days after Bhutto’s death, mourners outside shouted for Sanam Bhutto, Bhutto’s sister, who has stayed out of politics. Others said they wanted another Bhutto—the daughter or son of Bhutto’s dead brother. Some said it was a ploy to rename Bhutto’s children as Bhuttos to take advantage of the family name. Just as he was named the party’s ceremonial head, Bilawal Zardari was renamed Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

In Lyari, a slum in Karachi where gangs, drugs and guns hold sway, the red, green and black flags of the People’s Party hang from most street lights and storefronts. This neighborhood has always been a stronghold of Bhutto—where people remember shaking her hand, where relatives died protecting her in October. Some here don’t feel the same about Zardari.

“We’re not hopeful,” said Abdul Latif, 43, a People’s Party worker whose cousin was killed in that blast. “We don’t have confidence in him. We don’t think he can lead. No one is willing to die for him.”

Many say the party could fracture after the elections, especially if certain people close to Bhutto are pushed aside by Zardari, who has surrounded himself more with his own allies in recent weeks. It also could split because of the nature of the party, which somehow has united the disparate groups of feudal landlords, moderate middle-class reformers who dislike dynastic politics, and poor people, largely through the charisma of the Bhutto family and the reformist legacy of the party.

Zardari said he would have to work hard to be a leader seen like Bhutto. “I have to earn respect,” he said. “I have to earn that kind of devotion.”

This article appeared in The Chicago Tribune