Asif Ali Zardari | Return of the survivor

The former President, who took the reins of the PPP after his wife and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, could well be Pakistan’s next President after his party struck a coalition agreement with the military-backed PML-N

Updated - February 25, 2024 10:28 am IST

Published - February 25, 2024 04:15 am IST

In the blood-smeared history of Pakistani politics, top leaders rarely emerge from prison unscathed. Deposed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was imprisoned and hanged in Rawalpindi district jail. His daughter Benazir Bhutto was in jail and had to leave the country, seeking medical treatment. She came back and got assassinated. Imran Khan is currently in jail and only the future will tell how his story will unfold.

But there is one leader who emerged stronger after multiple jail terms — Asif Ali Zardari, the undisputed leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the current head of the Zardari-Bhutto dynasty.

With a bit of help from destiny, Mr. Zardari, who had spent 11 years in jail in the past, could be the next President of the country as his party has sealed a deal with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which will hold the post of Prime Minister. This is not the first time Mr. Zardari’s destiny is being changed dramatically. On a wintry evening on December 27, 2007, an assassin’s bullet ended the life of Benazir Bhutto. Within hours, Mr. Zardari, who was then in Dubai with their three children, Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Asifa, was on a flight to Pakistan.

Also read: Bilawal Bhutto Zardari | His mother’s son 

At a meeting, of the central executive of the PPP in Naudero, Sindh, Mr. Zardari asked son Bilawal to read a ‘political will’ from Benazir that declared that “my husband Asif Ali Zardari” would lead the party in her absence. Bilawal was too young at 19 to inherit her legacy and, therefore, Mr. Zardari would take the reins. No one had heard of such a political will, not even Benazir’s old secretary Naheed Khan. Yet, the rule of Mr. Zardari was established over the PPP.

Mr. Zardari, a polo player from a family that was known for owning the Bambino cinema of Karachi, came into national limelight after his 1987 wedding to the then ‘daughter of the east’ Benazir Bhutto. The wedding was a memorable affair and was attended by political guests from different parts of South Asia and Europe.

Within months, the hands of destiny would alter the life of the couple when Gen. Zia ul Haq’s aircraft, Pak-1, mysteriously crashed in Bahawalpur, catapulting Benazir to her first prime ministerial stint. Benazir’s first (1988-’90) and second (1993-’96) tenures as PM were tumultuous as they coincided with the end of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, end of the Cold War and the intensification of the Kashmir crisis and cross-border terrorism in South Asia.

Two murders

In 1996, two murders took place that would shape the course of the Bhutto-Zardari destinies. On September 20, Murtaza Bhutto, elder brother of Benazir, was shot dead outside 70 Clifton, the residence where Zulfikar Ali Bhutto once lived. During the 1980s, the elder brother had led an international terrorist organisation called Al Zulfikar and lived for years in Syria and Libya, seeking revenge against Gen. Zia. The youngest of the Bhuttos, Shahnawaz, a leading commander of Al Zulfikar, was allegedly murdered in Nice, France, in 1985.

When Benazir became PM in 1988, Murtaza felt disinherited and developed a visceral dislike for his brother-in-law. On December 16, 1996, Mr. Zardari and Murtaza ended up flying in the same aircraft from Islamabad to Karachi. It was reported later that Murtaza’s body guards “kept glaring” at Mr. Zardari throughout the flight. That experience so terrified Mr. Zardari that instead of going to his house, he went to his father Hakim Ali Zardari’s house to seek safety. Two days later, Mr. Zardari, also known as ‘Mr 10 Percent’ because of corruption allegations, held a meeting with top officials to complain about Murtaza, which added to the allegations of his complicity in the murder of Murtaza.

The killings marked the beginning of the end of Benazir’s second term, which was replaced by a caretaker government in November 1996, paving the way for the 1997 election after which Nawaz Sharif became PM. Mr. Zardari first went to jail in 1990 on corruption charges and then again after the second term of Benazir, and was released in 2004. Mr. Zardari carved a political niche for himself within the party, starting with 1990 when he was elected to the National Assembly (NA) for the first time. He contested and won from jail and his release was one of the major issues for the PPP under Benazir and he later became Minister of Investment after Benazir returned to power in 1993.

As Benazir returned to Pakistan after nearly six years of exile in October 2007, Mr. Zardari gave her staff instruction to keep her safe as she was attacked within hours of her arrival. The military government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf blamed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, for the attack but the evidences from the spot were allegedly cleared by authorities, creating a strong suspicion about the incident that took place on October 18, 2007. Mr. Zardari tracked his wife on live TV from Dubai and screamed orders to keep her safe. She was downstairs in the armoured bus that was specially prepared and therefore survived. On December 27, however, the assassins succeeded, prompting Mr. Zardari to take up the leadership role.

Mr. Zardari proved his survival instincts when he completed his five-year term as President of Pakistan. His tenure was jolted within months by the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and internal political tumult led by Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). Mr. Khan built his movement on the anti-American sentiment that flourished in Pakistan because of the drone attacks against Taliban and al-Qaeda hideouts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but Mr. Zardari maintained a cautious silence on the issue of U.S.-Pakistan collaboration.

Backroom player

After his presidential term was over, Mr. Zardari indulged in backroom negotiations to maintain the party unity and presented himself as a veteran who is open to reconciliation. As the Imran Khan government came to a halt after his hurried February 24, 2022 visit to Moscow that coincided with the launch of Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine, Mr. Zardari once again found the playfield open for himself.

The election of 2024 has been controversial and marred by dramatic in-camera allegations of rigging. However, Pakistani politics is no stranger to rigging and Mr. Zardari himself knows it best as the election of 1997, which brought Nawaz Sharif to power, was bitterly criticised by his party at that time for alleged rigging. It remains to be seen if Imran Khan, who is in jail will, concede defeat and allow the new coalition government to start afresh, addressing the several challenges Pakistan is facing, including economic woes.

At the time of 2013 election, former Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira had asked the country to vote for reconciliation, ending the war with the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan’s present security situation is precarious as it deals with internal volatility and worsening ties with the Taliban in Kabul and Iran, with which it exchanged missiles in January. It’s doubtless that in the new formation, Mr. Zardari would stay as the tallest leader. But the challenges he would face may well be the toughest of his 33-year old political career.

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