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Archive for September 8th, 2008

Yesterday’s presidential election ended with the predicted result – PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari swept the polls, winning a two-thirds majority that made him the next president of Pakistan. So what now? Does the future of Pakistan fall magically into place? Are all our problems solved because, hurrah, we now have a new president? Not quite. Although U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice framed her comments in light of Pakistan’s democratic progress, telling reporters the election “was a positive sign for the civilian government of the U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism,” it is clear that Zardari has many challenges ahead. The AFP on Sunday reported the new president “will take charge of a country that has been [plagued] by Islamic militancy, with nearly 1,200 people killed in bombings and suicide attacks in the past year.” Just yesterday, a suicide bombing in Peshawar killed at least 35 people and injured dozens more. The Associated Press noted in its coverage,

Television footage showed a blast crater 3 feet deep, destroyed vehicles and pieces of debris scattered across a large area. Officials said many people were trapped under the rubble of two collapsed buildings in a nearby market. Civilians dug frantically with their hands in hopes of finding survivors.

In his Washington Post op-ed released last week, Zardari addressed this militant threat, noting, “I will work to defeat the domestic Taliban insurgency and to ensure that Pakistani territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on our neighbors or on NATO forces in Afghanistan.” This statement exemplifies Pakistan’s age-old balancing act, one that has gotten more difficult over time as anti-American sentiment has  increased and hardened. In a Daily Times opinion piece released today, Hasan-Askari Rizvi ultimately advised, “The president needs to work towards removing the gaps in the American and Pakistani approaches towards terrorism.” He also noted, “They [the government] need to provide clear political backup to the Pakistan Army, which is dealing directly with the Taliban and other militants. Such support is needed to boost the morale of the army and paramilitary personnel at the frontlines.” Moreover, since this is the first time a civilian president will chair the National Command Authority and the National Security Council, Zardari must be a sufficient liason between the military’s top brass and the government.

Aside from Pakistan’s security dilemma, Zardari is also facing political pressure to reverse Musharraf’s changes to the constitution, giving the president the right to dismiss the Parliament. Following the election results Saturday, Zardari asserted to reporters, “Parliament will be sovereign…This president shall be subservient to the Parliament.

However, the NY Times reported, “there was considerable skepticism among politicians and in the news media that Mr. Zardari would agree to a diminution of power.” Although PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, in a conciliatory gesture, reportedly telephoned the PPP co-chairman to congratulate him on his victory and pledge his support,  Ahsan Iqbal, a former minister and senior PML-N official, told the AFP, “Zardari’s first test is that as president he facilitates the transfer of Musharraf’s powers to parliament...We want the president to be apolitical – that has been the tradition and we hope this tradition is kept.”

Zardari and the government also must tackle the numerous economic issues facing Pakistan. According to Bloomberg,

International investors have fled a stock exchange that has nearly halved in value this year, the second-worst performance in Asia after China, as state subsidies for food and fuel and record military spending widened the budget deficit to a 10-year high.

The news agency cited Sakib Sherani, an Islamabad-based country economist for the Royal Bank of Scotland, who said, “The fiscal issue is the weakest link in the policy mix…[and] the depletion of foreign exchange reserves is fairly worrying.” He added that Zardari “won’t have the luxury of dealing with them one by one; he will have to deal with a lot of challenges simultaneously.” The news piece also cited David Chatterjee, who echoed, “Pakistan is seriously struggling…Politics will remain an overhang even after the presidential election – but more important is economics.”

However, perhaps one of Zardari’s largest challenges is Zardari himself. Although he swept the polls on Saturday, the PPP co-chairman is haunted by a murky past, a not-too-forgiving present, and the eternal label, “Mr. Ten Percent.” The Economist added, “He was imprisoned, but not convicted, by both Mr. Sharif and Mr. Musharraf, on charges including murder and corruption. He has been investigated for money-laundering and other crimes in Spain and Switzerland.” In fact, noted an editorial in Sunday’s Dawn,

There have been more controversial presidents in the past – indeed, the last occupant of the presidency, Gen Musharraf, was almost universally unpopular – but none has been as controversial as Mr. Zardari at the time of assuming office.

Given such controversy, President Asif Ali Zardari has to dispel the skepticism associated with his sordid past and prove to us all that he can be our country’s president. The last line of Dawn’s editorial sums up my sentiments exactly: “It was Mr Zardari’s right to become president; it is the people’s right to expect leadership from him now.” [Image from Reuters]

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