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Is Zardari best man for Pakistan's top job?

world Updated: Aug 29, 2008 12:14 IST

AP
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Asif Ali Zardari, the man poised to become Pakistan's next president, is still known as "Mr. 10 Percent" because of corruption allegations. Now his own lawyers say he may have suffered from mental health problems within the past year.

That has left many Pakistanis wondering: Is this the best man for the job?

"People have short memories, but not that short," said Rafat Saeed, 42, as he parked his car in the bustling city of Karachi following a week of political turmoil and relentless violence by Islamic militants.

"His name is synonymous with corruption!"

Friends and family say Zardari, widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is fine now and fit to rule. But the questions over his psychological state could continue to haunt him. The United States and other Western nations nervously watched the ruling coalition collapse this week after the two main parties forced Musharraf a close ally in the war on terrorism to resign as president rather than face impeachment.

Zardari's party is now in a position to dominate the 5-month-old civilian government, especially if the 53-year-old, recently cleared of all graft charges, is elected president by lawmakers in September 6 vote, as is widely expected.

If he wins, he will be one of the most powerful civilian leaders in Pakistan's 61-year history, retaining many of the powers accumulated during Musharraf's nine-year rule, from the right to dissolve Parliament to appointing heads of the armed forces. But he has many demons in his past.

With US$60 million in a Swiss bank account, corruption allegations dating to his wife's time in power will not go away any time soon. Then, in recent days, questions emerged about the state of Zardari's mental health.

In a corruption case brought against him by the Pakistani government, Zardari's own lawyers told London court last year that he recently suffered from dementia and other psychological problems an apparent attempt to delay proceedings.

They claimed it was the result of years spent in Pakistani jails where Zardari says he was placed in solitary confinement, tortured and living in fear for his life before he was released in 2004. The claims of mental illness were first reported in the Financial Times. Friends, family and party members insist, however, that he's healthy now.

"He was under stress, no doubt," said Wajid Hasan, Pakistan's ambassador in Britain and a longtime friend of Zardari's, adding that the diagnosis is now more than a year old.

"He was never prescribed drugs, he only received counseling," Hasan said. "I have spent long periods of time with him in the past two years. ... He's been alert. He's been steady." But his political rivals disagree.

"A patient shouldn't be allowed to run for president," argued Sadiqul Farooq, spokesman for the party headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the junior party in the coalition that walked out this week.

Zardari, who earned the nickname "Mr. 10 Percent" while serving as minister for investment and environment when Bhutto was prime minister, was accused of pocketing commissions on contracts from Polish tractors to licenses to import gold.

He says the allegations were part of a smear campaign to keep Bhutto from returning from self-exile after her government collapsed in 1996.

Pakistani investigators accused them at one point of spiriting US$1.5 billion out of the country.

Swiss prosecutor Daniel Zappelli said on Thursday that some US$60 million that had been in Swiss bank accounts since the 1990s would be unfrozen, following a request by Pakistani authorities. He declined to identify the owner of the funds, citing privacy rules. But Hassan Habib at the Pakistani Embassy in Bern said he believed it belonged to "the late prime minister Bhutto, or her husband, or it was a joint account."

Among the skepticism, some in Pakistan are willing to cut Zardari some slack.

Imran Ibrahim, a 27-year-old stockbroker, notes that few Pakistani political leaders are squeaky clean, either using their position to line their own pockets or to help enrich family and friends.

"No one is free of flaws," Ibrahim said. "I think he's better than many of the others out there. Plus, he was the husband of Benazir Bhutto, who dreamed of a prosperous Pakistan. He'll live out her dream, or at least he'll try."

Bhutto was killed in a December 27 attack as she was campaigning for parliamentary elections. Zardari immediately took the reins of her Pakistan People's Party, surprising many as he rallied supporters. A former polo player from a wealthy landowning family, Zardari had shown little interest in politics, but quickly proved it wasn't due to lack of skill. By forming an unlikely alliance with Sharif, a bitter rival, they forced Musharraf from power.

The moment the former military ruler was gone, however, rifts in the coalition emerged.

Sharif accused Zardari of breaking promises to immediately restore judges ousted by Musharraf or to dramatically scale back the powers of the presidency.

Eventually, Sharif quit the coalition, saying his party would prefer to sit in the opposition.

Zardari's People's Party has begun forging new partnerships with smaller parties in Parliament, which could make it even more dominant.

Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor of politics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, said Zardari's widely perceived duplicity toward Sharif reawakened old doubts.

"He may be an expert in Darwinian politics, but people perceive a sheer lack of leadership qualities," said Ahmad. The United States worried about a burgeoning Islamic militancy, especially in the volatile northwest, a rumored hiding place of Osama bin Laden hopes the country will remain an ally in the war on terror.

It saw the Oxford-educated Bhutto, an outspoken critic of Islamic extremists, as a potential ally and last year pushed for her rapprochement with Musharraf. The hope was that they could form a pro-Western alliance and galvanize the campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The negotiations paved the way for her return including an agreement by Musharraf to order the closing of long-standing corruption cases against the couple but later fell apart. In March, Pakistani courts acquitted Zardari in the last case still pending against him, involving the import of a German luxury limousine. When the government told judicial authorities in Switzerland and Britain that no crime had been committed, the European courts had little choice but to end their proceedings. Anti-American sentiment runs high in this Muslim country, largely over the U S led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many people worry Zardari is too close to Washington.

The 5-month-old civilian government dabbled in peace talks with the militants after taking power, something Musharraf briefly tried as well.

But it has increasingly relied on force to try to beat back insurgents. Officials say hundreds have been killed and more than 200,000 people forced to flee their homes in recent weeks.

Associated Press reporters Stephen Graham in Islamabad, Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Babar Dogar in Lahore, Khalid Tanveer in Multan, Paisley Dodds in London and Frank Jordans in Geneva