Tuesday, September 09, 2008

“Bhutto is alive”: Asif Ali Zardari sworn in as new Pakistan president

Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was sworn in as the new president of Pakistan at a ceremony at President House in the capital Islamabad today. Zardari recited the oath of office "I will bear true faith and allegiance to Pakistan” in front of supporters who chanted "Long live Bhutto" and "Bhutto is alive". The ceremony marks the completion of a stunning rise to power for the 53 year old Zardari who was thrust into the spotlight after his wife was assassinated at an election rally in December last year.

But while Zardari is still considered a political novice by some, he did show great nous in the last month as he removed the final obstacles to his ascension to the top job. He firstly oversaw a deal in which former president Pervez Musharraf resigned to avoid impeachment. Then Zardari neatly sidestepped his reluctant coalition partner Nawaz Sharif to convincingly win the presidential vote of the electoral college consisting of two houses of the parliament and four provincial assemblies on the weekend. Zardari’s swearing in now formally completes Pakistan's return to civilian rule nearly nine years after General Musharraf seized power in a bloodless military coup.

Zardari’s two daughters, Bakhtawar and Asifa, and his son, Bilawal were also in attendance at the inauguration ceremony. It was the Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who was anointed his mother’s chosen successor as leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the emotional aftermath of Bhutto’s assassination. But because of Bilawal’s youth (he turns 20 in a fortnight), he remains a figurehead only and his father was appointed co-chairman of the party. This was a strategic move as Zardari carried a lot of baggage having spent 11 years in prison on various charges including blackmail and corruption, for which he earned the nickname "Mr 10 per cent”.

But none of his chequered history was mentioned today as he feted by the country’s luminaries. Zardari was presented a guard of honour by a contingent of the armed forces and then visited by the Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, as well as members of the federal cabinet, Senate chairman, Chief Justice of Pakistan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and chiefs of the three services. Zardari was anxious, however, to appear humble in his new role and ordered government departments not to issue advertisements congratulating him on his election. “We are a poor country and cannot afford such extravagance at the expense of taxpayers’ money,” he said. “The world is watching us and the government is facing many internal and external challenges.”

Chief among those challenges will be his ability to cobble together an effective ruling coalition now that Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) party pulled out of government on 25 August. On Monday, Sharif rebuffed the president-elect’s offer to rejoin the coalition but pledged to play a constructive role in opposition. Sharif had been threatening to pull out of the coalition since May claiming the PPP had not kept its promises to restore judges sacked by Musharraf. Sharif did not contest the presidential election himself, but Zardari outpolled PML-N's candidate, former chief justice Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, by a margin of three to one.

Another of Zardari’s challenges will be to present a moderate front to the extremism that racks Pakistan’s lawless fringes. While he was being sworn in, news emerged of a US missile attack a day earlier on Pakistani soil. The attack targeted a Taliban stronghold in the tribal province of North Waziristan. The attack backfired as it killed 23 people (mostly women and children) but failed to claim its target, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, whom the US accused of organising raids across the border in Afghanistan.

Haqqani senior had previously had the backing of Pakistani’s powerful spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence so the attack potentially signals a change of policy. Zardari has also been talking up the fight against the Taliban having raised eyebrows last month when he said Pakistan was losing the war. “The issue, which is not just a bad-case scenario as far as Pakistan is concerned or as Afghanistan is concerned but it is going to be spreading further,” he said. “The whole world is going to be affected by it." The world will now be watching Zardari to see what he does about it in his new role.

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