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For Pakistani president, goodbye to goodwill

President Asif Ali Zardari, who entered office 14 months ago on a wave of post-dictatorship goodwill, now faces growing public anger and disillusionment over his remote presidency.
Image: Asif Ali Zardari
Army officials have made no secret of their unhappiness over Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's compliant relationship with Washington.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

President Asif Ali Zardari, who entered office 14 months ago on a wave of post-dictatorship goodwill and sympathy for his slain wife, Benazir Bhutto, now faces growing public anger and disillusionment over his remote presidency. Some critics are urging him to step down, and others predict he will be forced from office within months.

In interviews, opinion articles and talk shows, a diverse range of people are denouncing Zardari as a corrupt and indifferent ruler. They accuse him of living in posh isolation while his country battles Islamist extremists, energy and food shortages, and a host of other problems.

Army officials, although considered unlikely to stage a coup, have made no secret of their unhappiness over Zardari's compliant relationship with Washington. The United States is allied with Pakistan in the war against extremists, but army leaders here remain wary of U.S. ties with India, and they were infuriated by the controls on military spending included in a recent American aid package for Pakistan.

Poor and working-class Pakistanis, meanwhile, blame the government for protracted shortages of gas, electricity and staple foods. They also feel increasingly unprotected, as suicide bombings have killed more than 350 people in two months.

'Huge disillusionment'
"There is a sense that the government is adrift and rudderless at a time the nation needs strong leadership," said S. Rifaat Hussain, a professor at Quaid-i-Azam University, adding that Zardari is widely seen as using his power for personal benefit. "He has alienated the best people and filled his cabinet with those who sit around waiting for orders. There is huge disillusionment."

Zardari's deepening unpopularity has put Washington in a bind because of its avowed commitment to bolstering democratic politics in Pakistan after a decade of military rule. If he is forced from power, either on old corruption charges or through a collapse of the ruling coalition, analysts said, Washington might have to deal with new leaders who are less friendly and no better able to solve Pakistan's problems.

Zardari rarely gives long interviews or unscripted speeches, but aides insist he is not the man his critics portray. They describe him as hardworking, tough-minded and bursting with ideas for improving the economy. They say he is not corrupt, and attribute such accusations to a mix of political rivalry and the country's sensationalistic TV talk-show culture.

"The president lives in a glass house, and he knows his responsibilities to the country. I can assure you there is no wheeling and dealing going on," said Fauzia Wahab, a legislator and spokeswoman for the ruling Pakistan People's Party. "People keep bringing up old cases, but it is just to humiliate and ridicule him. To be negative is fashionable."

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in an interview Saturday that Zardari is the victim of certain political groups, including right-wing religious parties, "conspiring against democracy." Malik added: "The president is progressive and determined to pursue the war on terror. Some groups don't like that."

'Mr. Ten Percent'
Legally, the issue most likely to bring Zardari down is corruption. A businessman known as "Mr. Ten Percent" when his late wife was prime minister in the 1990s, he was accused of orchestrating kickback schemes and spent nearly eight years in prison on various charges, although he was never convicted of a crime.

Last week, charges resurfaced from a 1994 case in which Pakistani naval officials allegedly took huge commissions in the sale of three French submarines. A French newspaper reported that Zardari was also paid more than $3 million and may have been complicit in the killings of 11 French maritime engineers in Karachi in 2002. Pakistani officials denied the charges, noting that he was in prison at the time.

For the moment at least, Zardari cannot be prosecuted on any past charges — an immunity he gained under a provisional constitutional change decreed by his predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, before leaving office. But parliament unexpectedly did not give the decree final approval last month, and it is due to expire Nov. 28.

After that date, the Supreme Court, led by the iconoclastic chief justice whose reinstatement Zardari fought to prevent, could declare his election illegal and reopen cases against him and some of his aides. Even though he will probably not be sent back to prison, the specter of prosecution could deal Zardari a fatal political blow, leaving leaders scrambling to form a new government in the middle of a war against terrorism.

"It is clear the cases will be reopened eventually, but corruption is not the real issue," said Athar Minallah, a lawyer and former aide to Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. "The president should never be removed illegally, but if we are to build a stable Pakistan, we need to reestablish the rule of law and the constitution."

The other major strike against Zardari is the public perception that he is too close to the United States.

Despite generous U.S. aid offers and the bilateral thaw that followed the return of civilian government, many Pakistanis are convinced the United States wants to take over their country and use the anti-terrorism effort as an excuse to seize its nuclear arsenal.

"There is a lot of suspicion and antagonism," said Hussain, the professor. "Zardari needs to get out and tell people that the government wants democracy, but not one that is subservient to American interests."

Wahab said she was stunned at the ferocious domestic criticism of the U.S. aid package, which would give Pakistan $7.5 billion over five years. She said that Zardari had worked hard to win international aid for Pakistan, and that his dream is to build an economy that could compete with India's and China's. "A lot of good things have happened in these 18 months," she said, "but no one ever talks about them."

Yet Pakistanis interviewed last week, from students to shopkeepers to retirees, complained that the Zardari government has not delivered relief from any of the country's major problems. All said they had lost the hope they had felt when military rule was replaced by a civilian government.

"Prices keep going up and bombs keep going off, but our leaders don't seem to care," said Jamal Hassan, 26, who sells socks in a bazaar. "Everyone thought Zardari would become a changed person and a mature politician, but he didn't change and he didn't deliver. We don't want dictatorship back, but since then everything has gotten worse."