A party in disarray and its headless reelection campaign.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party defied all expectations by remaining in power in Islamabad for its full term. Between Saturday’s election and the 2008 polls, it had two prime ministers and five years to consolidate and recover from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister and Zardari’s wife who ran her father’s party with an iron grip for some 30 years. Today, Zardari and his 24-year-old son, Bilawal, who is chairman of the party, are both missing from the reelection campaign. There is no one to lead the party, which is widely expected to be pummeled at the polls.
Zardari is barred from campaigning as head of state. The major rallies that his son had been expected to address were cancelled in the face of Taliban threats. While Bilawal is appearing in TV and newspaper advertisements, the unpopular Zardari is missing altogether.
Helped by Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani’s determination to keep to the sidelines and the opposition’s unwillingness to force early elections, analysts credit Zardari’s wheeler-dealer abilities for keeping the PPP in power. The 57-year-old survived enormous pressure from a judiciary determined to put him on trial for corruption, in the end sacrificing his first prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, but otherwise emerging relatively unscathed.
Born on July 26, 1955 into a landowning family from Sindh, Zardari was barely known at the time of his arranged marriage to Bhutto in 1987. He carved out a powerful position for himself during his wife’s two short-lived premierships. After her first administration, he was jailed, in 1990, for three years and was back behind bars within half an hour of her second government’s dismissal in 1996, held for eight years for alleged corruption, murder, and drug smuggling. He has always claimed the allegations were politically motivated.
When his wife ended self-exile to contest elections in October 2007, Zardari stayed behind in Dubai with their three children. Bombers targeted her homecoming, killing 140 people. Bhutto survived, but she was killed two months later at a political rally in Rawalpindi. Zardari, in Dubai, reportedly learned of her death from television news. Her assassination stunned the world, plunged Pakistan into mourning, and propelled Zardari into the political limelight.
Kept at bay for years by the PPP, which was uncomfortable with his shady reputation, Zardari took control as co-chairman alongside his then-teenage son, who is still too young to seek election. The PPP won the 2008 elections on a wave of sympathy and unanimously supported Zardari’s candidacy for the president.
In 2010, Zardari earned some praise for relinquishing much of his power as president to the prime minister, rolling back on decades of meddling by military rulers in an effort to institutionalize parliamentary democracy. But whether reforms that his government introduced can get the PPP reelected remains doubtful and his record in government has been weak.
The administration has been pilloried for being ineffectual, presiding over a deteriorating economy, and being unable to stem Taliban attacks. He has suffered abysmal personal approval ratings and is almost never seen in public. Relations between the United States have also been deeply troubled. In a country where the military still has a tight hold on foreign policy, Zardari is often considered an ineffectual U.S. ally.
His future role will depend on the PPP’s showing at the polls. Bilawal is now sole chairman of the party and will be old enough to run for Parliament in September. While no one knows for sure, many expect Zardari will beat a retreat to Dubai or slip back again into the shadows after his term as president expires in September.