Features | Politics | South Asia

Pakistan’s Fracturing President

President Asif Ali Zardari has shown an extraordinary knack for survival. How has a man so tainted with corruption survived?

By Azeem Ibrahim for

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.”

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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. 

Pakistan’s inquiry has led nowhere, largely because Musharraf passed legislation wiping out pending cases against senior officials (himself included). He granted amnesty to Zardari through the National Reconciliation Order of 2007, but this only dealt with charges up to 1999.  There are still investigations pending into Zardari’s alleged involvement in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein with the oil-for-food program, a charge of evading duties on an armored BMW, commissions from a Polish tractor manufacturer, the kickback from the gold bullion dealer and a reopening of the Swiss conviction. In Britain, he’s fighting a case against the Pakistani government over proceeds from the sale of his Surrey mansion.

Charges like these would have deposed a lesser mortal but Zardari, according to James Traub in a New York Times interview in 2009 is “a suave and charming man with a sly grin, and he gives the impression of thoroughly enjoying what must be among the world’s least desirable jobs.”  He seems to have insulated himself from criticism by opting for crony government, surrounding himself with a tight and isolating group of friends, loyalists and family members.

He also has the loyal backing of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who seems to be willing to sacrifice his career to protect Zardari. In a bizarre series of court hearings, the Supreme Court has charged Gilani with contempt of court for defying its order to reopen a corruption case against the president. Supporters of the judiciary have applauded the judge for upholding the rule of law, but government loyalists are accusing Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry of pursuing a personal vendetta against Zardari.

Gilani risks a jail sentence for contempt of court and could lose his position, in a process that could drag on for months. However, Zardari may not be at any risk as Swiss prosecutors dropped the case once, and are unlikely to reopen it because of Zardari’s immunity as head of state. 

The Supreme Court is also being tested in a case where the army is being called to account concerning seven suspected militants being held by the ISI without charges.  Once again, Pakistan is being fractured by a struggle for power between the army, the Supreme Court and the civilian government and in the meantime, Zardari’s leadership seems extraordinarily compromised in the eyes of the world.

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So with a sense of déjà vu, of deep concern and tenuous hope, the world watches and waits for Pakistan to prove it isn’t yet a failed state, that a transformation into durable stability is under way and that progress is at last being forged for the long term good of the people of Pakistan.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Lecturer at the University of Chicago, Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.