From crisis to crisis: Zardari's Pakistan

One year since Benazir Bhutto's death, the frenzied grief that propelled her husband to the presidency is replaced by uncertainty and a creeping radicalisation. Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich report
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The Independent Online

When the assassin struck, Asif Ali Zardari was a thousand miles away. As his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was fatally attacked at an election rally in Rawalpindi a year ago today, Mr Zardari was at one of the family homes in Dubai, out of sight and out of the political plans of the woman who was seeking her third term as Pakistan's prime minister.

That chaotic, frenzied night – as he and the couple's son, Bilawal, flew back to Pakistan to take charge of both the funeral arrangements of Ms Bhutto and the reins of her party – fate and the explicit wishes of his wife were conspiring to push him centre-stage in the country's political arena.

A year on, the man who was once derided as "Mr 10 Per Cent" for his alleged corruption, is not simply head of his wife's Pakistan People's Party but President of the whole country. After the party won the greatest number of seats in February's election and formed the government, Mr Zardari and the PPP then moved against President Pervez Musharraf. Confronted by possible impeachment, the former army boss eventually stood down to be replaced by Mr Zardari.

Looking back, the events of the previous 12 months still appear extraordinary. But as Pakistan and its leader prepare for 2009, the year ahead seems certain to be no less dramatic. Confronted by the rising threat from militants, a faltering economy, an unsettled dispute with the legal community and, most recently, a deeply nerve-jangling stand-off with the old enemy, India, many doubt whether the man who came to power so unexpectedly will survive in his position another 12 months.

"I would put his chances only at 50-50. I can be only half sure," said Farzana Shaikh, an analyst at Chatham House, speaking this week from Karachi. "If there is another attack on India [by Pakistan-based militants] then I think he will be ousted from power."

There are plenty in Pakistan who still weep for Ms Bhutto, who still mourn her vitality. The road to Liaquat Bagh – the park in Rawalpindi where she was killed – has been renamed Benazir Bhutto Road and is lined with vast portraits. Many of them show her in the midst of an impassioned election speech, like the one she gave the day of her assassination. Others depict her alongside her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, through the bars of whose death cell she inherited the torch of leadership of the PPP just days before he was hanged in this city in 1979 by a military dictator.

Mahmood Ahmed, a silver-haired man dressed in a navy pinstriped suit, is a regular visitor to a makeshift memorial, wreathed in candles. From 1997 onwards, he served as a member of Ms Bhutto's staff. "The pain I feel today is just a severe as it was the day she was killed," he said.

Today thousands like Mr Ahmed are expected to gather in Rawalpindi and in Ms Bhutto's ancestral village of Garhi Khuda Baksh, near Larkana in Sindh, where she is buried in the family mausoleum, beside her father and near her two brothers who were killed in still-disputed circumstances. The people will grieve her death, which came just months after she survived an assassination attempt the day she returned to Pakistan from exile.

But the posters that line such places underline Pakistan's new reality. Bearing the slogan "Let's keep the flame alive", they picture Ms Bhutto in the background. In the foreground meanwhile, are those to whom she bequeathed the future, her 20-year-old son and, of course, her husband.

The challenges facing the President and his fragile government are vast. In the year since Ms Bhutto was assassinated, Pakistan has been constantly threatened by militants, whose strongholds are located along the country's rugged border with Afghanistan, and there has been creeping radicalisation in such heartland areas as the southern Punjab.

Under pressure from the US, Pakistan has launched military operations against militants in places such as Bajaur and the Swat valley. More than 1,300 Pakistani troops have died. At the same time, the US has decided to step up operations against suspected militants using pilotless drones. The missiles often kill civilians. Even when they strike the intended targets, such operations increase anti-American sentiment and leave Mr Zardari open to accusations that he is simply fighting Washington's war.

In recent weeks, the issue of countering extremism has been complicated by the stand-off with its nuclear-armed neighbour following the attacks in Mumbai that left 160 people dead and which were blamed by India on the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). While Mr Zardari initially appeared keen to co-operate with the investigation – offering to send the most senior officer within the ISI intelligence agency to help – he was forced to order an embarrassing row-back, apparently under instructions from the military.

Mr Zardari has vowed to bring the accused to justice once he is provided with convincing evidence. Several LeT facilities have been closed and some members detained. But the President is forced to walk a perilously thin line; it remains unclear to what extent the army-controlled intelligence agency retains links with LeT and how far it would allow the government to dismantle it. While Mr Zardari may wish to co-operate with the international community, at home he cannot be seen to bow to pressure from India.

"To deal with terrorism effectively, Zardari has to deal with the military – a parallel institution – which is something that no civilian leader in Pakistan has ever been able to do," said Vernon Hewitt, a South Asia expert at Bristol University. And the stand-off with India only strengthens the standing of the military. The position of conservative politicians such as Nawaz Sharif – a short-lived former ally who now positions himself as an opponent of the government – is also stronger. Mr Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) could yet forge an alliance with the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), formerly the party of Pervez Musharraf, to oppose Mr Zardari.

And the scorpion Mr Zardari kicked aside earlier this year is returning to sting again. The lawyers who fought for the reinstallation of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other senior judges ousted by Mr Musharraf are to undertake another "long march" to Islamabad on 9 March – the second anniversary of the chief justice's initial sacking – to demand his return to the bench. Mr Zardari, determined not to reinstate Mr Chaudhry out of fear he could annul an amnesty that permitted him and his late wife to return to Pakistan, will also face protests from Mr Sharif, who recently suggested Pakistan could become a "failed state". Such is Mr Sharif's conviction that the Chief Justice should be returned to office that earlier this year his party pulled out of the PPP-led government.

Is the man who spent 11 years in jail on never-proven corruption charges capable of overcoming these challenges? The 53-year-old, from a feudal background in Sindh, has certainly tried to transform himself since being pushed to the front of Pakistan's political turmoil. Well-tailored, well-read and seemingly well-intentioned he sought initially to capitalise on the outpouring of grief for his wife and the equally-strong disgruntlement with Mr Musharraf.

Yet a recent poll by the Washington-based International Republican Institute suggests that 88 per cent of Pakistanis think their country is heading the wrong way; it also finds that 60 per cent believe 2009 will be worse than this year; and that the government has a negative rating of 76 per cent – 4 per cent shy of Mr Musharraf's worst rating. And while Mr Zardari has proven himself to be shrewd at manoeuvring in domestic politics – he has kept control of his party and cobbled together a coalition government that helped elect him President – there are grave doubts about his abilities at statecraft. His inexperience has been demonstrated on repeated occasions during the post-Mumbai crisis, telling the US talk show host Larry King that the Second World War was started by a "non state actor"; embarrassingly caught off guard by a hoax phone call from a prankster claiming to be India's Foreign Minister and swiftly back-pedalling to register a formal protest about a technical airspace violation by India.

Mr Zardari can only hope the economy manages some sort of improvement, if just to restore the public's good will. Facing record inflation and a plunging rupee, the government has been forced to accept a $7bn loan from the IMF to avoid defaulting on international debts. Soaring food prices and worsening power shortages – though problems of a global nature or else inherited from the previous regime – are only adding to the government's perceived incompetence. Some analysts say that there are signs of plots against Mr Zardari emerging both within the establishment and his own party. Much will depend on the view of the US and its incoming President, Barack Obama.

"The biggest challenge to Mr Zardari is Mr Zardari himself," said Ayesha Siddiqa, a strategic affairs analyst and author. "The greatest problem is his inability to run the government and to assess what the threat is." And adding to this image of haplessness, of course, is that a year after Ms Bhutto's death, Pakistanis are no closer to finding out who killed her. The Musharraf regime blamed the gun and bomb attack on militants led by the Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud; subsequent inquiries, supported by detectives from Scotland Yard, suggested Ms Bhutto died after severely striking her head on a lever in her car.

The PPP still rejects this conclusion and the government has asked the UN to establish an inquiry. "We have lodged our request to the UN," said Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister. "They have very kindly agreed now to form a commission, and we are waiting for that commission to come and investigate here. The previous investigation was done by the previous government. We have rejected it."

Today, as Mr Zardari grieves for his late wife, it is fair to assume that he will reflect not only on his personal loss but how he and his country have lurched from crisis to crisis since her death. He is also likely to ponder on the coming year, aware that nothing is likely to become any easier, anytime soon.

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