Zardari vows to fight for role in Pakistan's future

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Pakistan's beleaguered President Asif Ali Zardari yesterday vowed that he was ready to fight his opponents even as he faced repeated calls to step down.

A day after the country’s Supreme Court annulled a controversial 2007 amnesty that had protected him and many of his political allies from corruption charges, the main opposition party, headed by former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, renewed its demand that he resign immediately.

But speaking with a delegation of journalists who visited him at the ornate presidential palace, a strident Mr Zardari said he was prepared to fight his corner, much as his late wife Benazir Bhutto and her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had done.

Mr Zardari is a famously stubborn man, convinced of his own talents and of the essential, central role he has to play in Pakistan’s future. Yet there is no underestimating the challenges facing the deeply unpopular president. The annulling of the amnesty has opened the door to the possibility of a series of legal challenges, both against him and his senior allies, even though leading experts say he has immunity from prosecution as president.

“Zardari is besieged. He is in a very difficult situation and I think the waters are too stormy for him to stay afloat,” said political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais. “This verdict has opened him up to challenges on many fronts – constitutional, legal, moral and political.”

Mr Zardari, who was commonly known as ‘Mr 10 per cent’ during his wife’s first term as prime minister and ‘Mr 20 per cent’ during her second, has repeatedly been plagued by allegations of corruption. This week, the court in Islamabad heard a claim that he had creamed off as much as $1.5bn.

Mrs Bhutto and Mr Zardari, who spent more than a decade in prison on charges of both corruption and murder but was never actually convicted, always dismissed allegations leveled at them as being politically motivated. He was most recently released from jail in 2004; in 2006, he filed an affidavit in London claiming that mental disorders including dementia meant that he was unfit to face a civil case in Pakistan over buying a house with illicit funds.

The 54-year-old only came to office following the assassination of his wife in December 2007 and was named in her will as co-chair of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) along with their son, Bilawal. Yet whatever sympathy and goodwill he may have earned in the aftermath of her death, his popularity now is at an all-time low. He has angered many Pakistanis by his apparent willingness to bend to US demands and embarrassed others by his seemingly frivolous behavior, such as when he met US Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and told her she was “gorgeous”.

Many have been frustrated by his unwillingness to make political compromises that might save the country from further turmoil, such as his foot-dragging over the reinstatement of chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March when he was eventually forced into a humiliating climb-down after the political opposition and lawyers mounted a vast demonstration. The army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani, applied pressure on the government to concede.

All the while, Mr Zardari, a one-time polo-playing bachelor whose arranged marriage to Benazir Bhutto surprised many observers, has headed a nation seemingly unable to stop a wave of militant violence.

Indeed, failing to win credit has long been a theme of the government. Despite difficult moments, such as the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks and the Taliban takeover of the Swat Valley, successful moves towards stabilising relations with India or helping turn public opinion decisively against the militants were opportunities that he has failed to sell as his own.

Aides say that since entering the occupying the presidential palace, their boss has sees less of the public. Careful attention to security has meant that is able to see fewer visitors. He scarcely appears in public, managing just a single visit to a hospital ward of terror victims recently. Fearing for his life, he has repeatedly rebuffed counsel that he visit Pakistani soldiers fighting in Swat and South Waziristan.

Visitors report that he has little use for expert advice either. “His approach was, ‘I know all this already, why are you telling me,’” said a retired military officer who had been invited to lunch.

The increasingly isolated existence has also turned Mr Zardari to spirituality. While he used to mock his wife for seeking advice from mystics, he has employed one of his own. The Punjabi practitioner of South Asia’s fabled asceticism sits in the presidency all day, offering counsel to passers-by and distancing the president from those that he does not trust.

Few believe the president will give up his position without a fight, even though he has repeatedly said he was prepared to dilute the powers of the presidency.

His aides certainly stress that he will face any charges brought against him. But since vaulting to high office, the controversial president has been repeatedly drawn into political fights that he has had to retreat from in the face of unbearable pressure from the opposition, the media and the military establishment.

Much now will depend on who his opponents decide to proceed and whether they target him directly, by challenging his eligibility to hold the position of president, or go after his allies first. Some observers believe he can brave the gathering storm if he moves quickly to assume a ceremonial role and overhaul his much-criticised cabinet of ministers.

But adding to his distress, the Supreme Court has also reopened an investigation that examined allegations of money laundering. The case, opened in a Swiss court three years ago, was suspended by the authorities in Geneva after they were told by the attorney general serving under President Pervez Musharraf that Pakistan was no longer pursuing the case. At the same time, the Swiss authorities unblocked $60m that had been frozen in bank accounts. This week the court said this was illegal and ordered the government to ask Swiss authorities to reopen the case.

A spokesman for the Swiss justice ministry, Folco Galli, told the Associated Press, it had not received any new request for international judicial assistance from Pakistan. He said Pakistan would first have to open a criminal investigation into Mr Zardari before it could file for Swiss help.