In less than one year, 160 million helpless people of Pakistan watched the second melodrama of presidential election. On September 6, Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chairman of Pakistan Peoples Party was indirectly elected as the 12th President of Pakistan. Like the last presidential election when General Parvez Musharraf was re-elected, Zardari's victory by a wide margin was a foregone conclusion.
This was Pakistan's second presidential election in 11 months, following a controversial Oct 6 election of the then General Musharraf for a second term that became the cause of a still-continuing judicial crisis after he sacked the Chief Justice of Supreme Court, Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and many other superior court judges to avoid a legal challenge to his candidacy in uniform.
Tellingly, despite a written pledge, Zardari has blocked the restoration of Justice Iftikhar fearing that an independent judiciary may reopen corruption cases against him and other members of his party who were given amnesty under the so-called NRO - National Reconciliation Ordinance.
The NRO is something quite extraordinary. So many court cases were withdrawn with just one stroke, erasing sensational fact-sheets about prize properties abroad and references to shady deals.. In a remarkable exercise in deceitful diplomacy, Washington played the questionable role in this deal.
Zardari's return to politics after the NRO has meant the dropping of all charges against him and the release of millions in frozen assets. Now presidency will confer legal immunity.
However, election to the presidency isn't likely to put to rest concerns about his record. Mr. Zardari has faced a number of well documented charges in the past, including corruption and conspiracy to murder. Tellingly, Swiss investigators also were pursuing a money-laundering probe until Pakistani authorities recently asked them to drop the case.
Not surprisingly, a poll by Gallup Pakistan found only 26 percent of about 2,000 people questioned thought Zardari should be president, while 44 percent didn't want him or any of the two candidates. The findings reflected a "growing sense of alienation between the public at large ... and the political system and political parties", According to the Gallup Pakistan.
In sharp contrast to the excitement during the campaign leading to parliamentary elections, most Pakistanis looked on the presidential vote with considerable indifference. According to Washington Post, Zardari's victory surprised few Pakistanis, who expressed little interest in the election. In Islamabad's commercial center, several people said they doubt that the new president will make much difference. For the people of Pakistan what is depressing is not that everything now changes with the election of Zardari, but that everything stays the same.
Zardari will inherit the wide-ranging powers assumed by President Musharraf, who resigned when threatened with impeachment last month. He will thus be able to dismiss parliament and appoint the chief of Pakistan's armed forces.
The election comes amid heightened tensions with the U.S. Last week, Pakistan accused U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan of leading a cross-border raid into a Pakistani village that killed 20 people, including women and children. In a sign of rising anti-American anger, the Parliament passed resolutions condemning the attack and the government summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest.
Zardari is very much a 'plan B' for Washington which prefers the pro-Western, secular widower of Benazir Bhutto, whom they hoped would become Prime Minister on returning last year, to the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who, more politically and religiously conservative than his rival, is seen as less likely to follow US blindly. Sharif better reflects the growing anti-American and anti-Western sentiment among Pakistanis. To borrow Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington, Asif Zardari is already hated by much of the population, in part because he is seen as too pro-American.
Pakistan's leading newspaper The Nation best reflected the national sentiment when it said on Zardari's election:
"Notwithstanding what foreign reports about Mr Zardari's commitment to Washington on aggressively pursuing the War On Terror, the people of Pakistan sincerely hope that their elected representative would not repeat history and adopt anti-people policies à la Musharraf. Not only their sensitivities but also the supreme national interests call for negotiated rather than military solution to the problem."- Advertisement -
His presidency will remain a divisive factor in Pakistani politics until its controversial powers such as to dissolve the National Assembly, sack a prime minister and appoint armed forces' chief, provincial governors and the chief election commissioner, are clipped and he is able to restore his shattered credibility, which is hardly helped by a piecemeal reinstatement of judges.
He is moving into the presidency at a time when multiple crises face Pakistan. From across the western frontier, US forces threaten to continue their assaults. The sovereignty of the country is at risk.
Economic situation is worsening day by day as hyper-inflation affects every citizen. Forecasts of food riots have been made, fuel costs may rise further and a new increase in power rates looms. In a research note published last week, Citigroup urged Pakistan to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund to avoid defaulting on its sovereign debt.