Newsmaker: Can Pakistan's accidental president survive?

ISLAMABAD Fri Dec 23, 2011 12:36pm GMT

Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari speaks during an interview with China Daily after the opening ceremony of the China-Eurasia Expo in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region September 1, 2011. REUTERS/China Daily

Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari speaks during an interview with China Daily after the opening ceremony of the China-Eurasia Expo in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region September 1, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/China Daily

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Asif Ali Zardari, under threat from a memo accusing Pakistan's powerful generals of plotting a coup to overthrow him, has never managed to dispel the notion he is an accidental president.

Zardari was elected in 2008 on the back of a sympathy vote after his far more charismatic wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated shortly after returning from self-exile.

His rule has been a rocky one ever since.

Zardari returned from medical treatment in Dubai this week, raising speculation he would step down in the face of pressure from the military. Pakistan's most powerful institution, the military is pressing for an investigation into who was behind the memo.

If a link is established between the memo and Zardari, it would likely cost Zardari his job and throw already unstable Pakistan into greater turmoil.

Zardari has never connected with Pakistanis like Bhutto did. That was all too clear when epic floods raged through Pakistan in 2010, inundating 20 percent of the country and making millions homeless.

The president was on a trip in Europe and made no immediate plans to return home. While in France, Zardari visited a chateau he owns in Normandy.

The election of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in 2008 raised hopes the nuclear-armed South Asian nation could shake off the legacy of decades of military rule and turn back a rising tide of Islamist militancy.

Zardari, however, has failed to deliver since then, dismissed as an uncaring playboy -- another feudal landlord who ignored the needs of the masses -- while Pakistan lurched from crisis to crisis, from crippling power cuts to suicide bombings.

Zardari has always appeared to lack the political resolve to push through reforms that could help Pakistan's fragile economy and make it less dependent on foreign aid.

"NUMBSKULL"

Some Western officials concluded early on that he lacked the skills to lead Pakistan, a country seen as critical to Washington's global efforts to tackle militancy.

In a 2008 diplomatic cable carried by WikiLeaks, then chief of the British Defense Staff Jock Stirrup said Zardari was "clearly a numbskull."

The unpopularity of his government may have only served to strengthen Pakistan's generals after Zardari committed the cardinal sin for any Pakistani politician of alienating the military.

At one point, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani hinted to the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad that he might have to persuade Zardari to step down because of political turmoil, according to a 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks.

But luckily for Zardari, it seemed the military concluded he was a better option than other political leaders it distrusted even more.

Soon after Pakistan's ambassador to the United States resigned last month after a Pakistani-American businessman accused him of being behind the memo, many wondered if the resilient Zardari could survive once again.

He looks more vulnerable than ever, at an already tense time when ties with the United States are at an all-time low.

A unilateral U.S. special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town in May reinforced long-held suspicions that Islamabad is an unreliable partner in the war on militancy.

However, a U.S. cross-border air attack that mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers has given the military a chance to reassert itself after the humiliation of the bin Laden raid, leaving Zardari and other civilian leaders to be blamed for Pakistan's problems.

"MR. 10 PERCENT"

Criminal cases could also haunt Zardari, who earned the title "Mr. 10 Percent" while Bhutto was in power, based on allegations he demanded kickbacks on state contracts.

Zardari has also been accused of murder and has spent a total of 11 years in jail on corruption charges.

Zardari was charged with conspiracy to commit murder after his brother-in-law, Murtaza Bhutto, was killed in 1996 but he denied any wrongdoing and was never convicted.

However, after his wife's government collapsed in late 1996, he was arrested and charged with corruption, such as kickbacks in deals involving a Swiss company. He was never convicted and denies the charges but spent the next eight years in jail.

He went into self-exile in Dubai after his release in 2004, returning in 2007. Zardari was also jailed on corruption charges between 1990-93.

In 2009, the Supreme Court scrapped a controversial amnesty law that had dismissed corruption charges against thousands of Pakistani politicians, including Zardari.

Even though Zardari is looking more politically fragile than ever after what has been dubbed "memogate," stepping down would strip him of presidential immunity in the corruption cases.

(Editing by Paul Tait)

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