06 September, 2008

Pakistan: The Lolz Continue

Asif Ali Zardari has today been elected president of Pakistan. Zardari is head of the Pakistan People's Party and, famously, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. He is also a man who has attracted numerous accusations of corruption. The Pakistani presidency is a powerful office, with control of the armed forces and the country's nuclear arsenal, as well as direct responsibility for the tribal areas that border Afghanistan and the power to sack the prime minister and dissolve parliament. Pakistan's president is not directly elected, but chosen by the country's parliament (where Zardari's party currently has a majority) when the post falls vacant.

Zardari's decision to appoint himself to the top job has caused the governing coalition to break. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the smaller Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz party wanted a compromise candidate, but Zardari ignored him and Sharif took the PML-N out of government. Zardari's party can govern without the PML-N, but the rupture is unfortunate, as it represents the breaking of the pro-democracy coalition that eased dictator Pervez Musharaf from power.

Since leaving the government, Sharif has suddenly found himself facing an indictment on corruption charges. No one is convinced by claims that the timing is purely coincidental. Like many Pakistani politicians, Sharif's hands may well have dipped into the till from time to time, but his indictment now is plainly an attempt by Zardari to crush a potentially dangerous rival. Zardari is fortunate in that he is covered by an amnesty issued by Musharaf for all corruption charges against him and Benazir Bhutto. The legality of this amnesty is questionable, but the comedy supreme court appointed by Musharaf remains in office. While in government, Sharif had campaigned for the reinstatement of the supreme court illegally sacked by Musharaf. Zardari was careful to block this move, lest the judges strike down his amnesty. So now Zardari is coasting to the top job in Pakistani politics, immune from investigation of his shady past, while corruption charges bury his rival.

Zardari is apparently considered sound on the War on Terror, so it is unlikely that any harsh words will come his way from Washington.

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