Most countries use their constitution as the rock solid basis for their nation’s laws. Some see a constitution as an annoyance to be flouted, skirted around or rewritten according to the need of the regime. Pakistan’s Constitution has certainly taken a beating over the years as successive civilian and military governments have sought to change it, suborn it, or select the bits they agree with and ignore the rest.
President Asif Ali Zardari is the latest in a 60-year line of leaders whose powers and legitimacy have been redefined by an amended constitution. In April 2010, the Eighteenth Amendment effectively restored the 1973 Constitution, which had been overturned by Gen. Zia and Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The new Constitution strips away presidential powers and restores the authority of the prime minster, making it more difficult for military chiefs to throw out a civilian government.
It seems surprising to outsiders that Zardari has managed to stay in this position for so long when others before him have been deposed, imprisoned or even executed for the mere suspicion of the crimes for which Zardari has been accused. It’s also surprising that he was even elected to the presidency after the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto, given his less than illustrious past, when he was known as “Mr. Ten Percent” for his alleged profiteering, corruption and misuse of public funds. Once elected, he quickly became unpopular with his own party after replacing Bhutto’s advisers with his own team, and he has since proved slow to respond to Pakistan’s crises.
But figurehead or not, Zardari continues to travel the world, seeking funds from the IMF, China and Saudi Arabia to respond to Pakistan’s dire need for capital assistance, and negotiating with Iran a gas pipeline that will benefit both nations.
Zardari has actually previously been convicted of corruption, and has spent a total of eight years in jail, and there are still outstanding indictments that are creating tensions in the National Assembly today. An article in the New York Times entitled House of Graft: Tracing the Bhutto Millions, spells out in uncomfortable detail the shadowy world of the Bhutto-Zardari fortunes. Documents offer an extraordinarily revealing look at high-level corruption in Pakistan, “a nation so poor that perhaps 70 percent of its 130 million people are illiterate, and millions have no proper shelter, no schools, no hospitals, not even safe drinking water.”
Among the deals that have come to light are a $200 million deal with French military contractor Dassault Aviation, which fell apart only after Bhutto’s government was dismissed; a leading Swiss company paid millions of dollars into offshore companies controlled by Zardari and Bhutto’s mother Nusrat; a gold bullion dealer in the Middle East apparently paid $1 million into a Zardari bank account.
There’s also evidence that the family amassed more than $1.5 billion in illicit profits through kickbacks in virtually every sphere of government activity, with accounts and transactions managed by a network of Western friends, lawyers and property companies.
Among the transactions Zardari exploited were defense contracts, power plant projects, the privatization of state owned industries; the awarding of broadcast licenses; the granting of an export monopoly for the country’s huge rice harvest; the purchase of planes for Pakistan International Airlines; the assignment of textile export quotas; the granting of oil and gas permits; authorization of sugar mills and the sale of government lands.
In 1993, he was convicted of money laundering, and in a separate case he and 128 others were indicted for conspiracy to murder his wife’s brother, Murtaza Bhutto. His release, re-arrest and the release again led to his exile in Dubai in 2005. Zardari has spent several years in jail, from 1997 and again from 1999 when he was sentenced over his connection to a Swiss company that had been hired to investigate corruption in the collection of customs duties.