Asif Zardari — can this man hold the PPP together?

Asif Zardari — can this man hold the PPP together?
By Ahmed Rashid; January 15, 2008

Before Benazir’s death, the Pakistani press referred to Zardari as ‘Mr Ten Percent’. Now, this same media prefers to hang on his every word. It appears that in light of his wife’s death, Zardari has been forgiven his sins – for the time being at least

More than two weeks after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, people are still coming in their tens of thousands to condole with her husband Asif Ali Zardari and weep and rage at her graveside.

They come on camels and tractor trolleys, luxury cars and private planes. Like an endless stream the lines of vehicles clog this small village, sending up showers of dust that settle on the lush fields of sugar cane. Some have walked the 300 kilometres from Karachi like monks doing penance.

There are Sindhis with their embroidered caps, Punjabis with enormous turbans and fierce looking Pashtun and Baloch tribesmen, as well as Kashmiris and Afghans with their winter caps and Mongols who live close to the Chinese border. In death no other politician in Pakistan has the capacity to assemble the entire nation in such a way – a nation usually divided by ethnic and sectarian hatred.

In the feudal family farmhouse of Bhutto at Naudero, Zardari sits in the middle of a warren of rooms and courtyards jam-packed with mourners. He moves from room to room hugging friends and raising his hands in frequent prayer. The rooms are windowless, built over the years to accommodate the maximum number of supplicants as Benazir herself was a feudal landlord. Now the walls are covered with pictures of her and her children and people burst into tears looking at them. We are now in the tenth day of the 40-day mourning period prescribed by Islam and the crowds should be thinning out, but there is no sign of that as yet.

As we wait to see Zardari, sitting next to me are one of the country’s top industrialists, senior lawyers and Pakistan’s leading landscape painter. Also an elderly woman who bursts into tears every few minutes and wails, “Oh God could you not have taken me instead of her.” Outside in the courtyard, thousands of peasants mill around, dazed and confused waiting to touch the hem of Zardari’s clothes, if not his hands.

Since Benazir’s death the Western media has revived Zardari’s nickname ‘Mr Ten Percent’, accrued from the commissions he allegedly made in deals when Benazir was prime minister twice in the 1990s. At one point he was immensely disliked in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) but now the same leaders say he is a changed man, more mature, responsible and more humble.

For starters, he spent eight years in jail under President Pervez Musharraf but was never found guilty of any of the charges against him. For many in the PPP he has paid his dues with his excessively long jail term. Not a single Pakistani newspaper has used the nickname since Benazir’s death and the media now hangs on to Zardari’s every word. In the light of his wife’s murder, he has been forgiven his sins – for the time being at least.

He has said he will guide the PPP up to the elections on February 18 and then take a back seat. The permanent leader of the party is his son Bilawal Bhutto, aged 19, and now in his first year at Oxford University. Zardari will not contest a seat in parliament and he has appointed another PPP leader, fellow Sindhi landlord Amin Fahim, as the party candidate to be prime minister.

Again much criticism has come from the Western media about the dynastic succession and the lack of democracy in the party – but in rural Sindh people would accept nothing less than a Bhutto to lead them. Benazir was first and foremost a Sindhi and even if Bilawal is underage, unimpressive and raw he is a Bhutto. Politics across South Asia is littered with political dynasties and there is nothing anyone can do about it for the time being.

Zardari escapes with a small group of journalists into his hideaway, a tiny soundproof room that can only seat five people. In a private conservation he unburdens his thoughts and fears for the future.

He knows he has a very tough job to keep the party together. Every one of the 54 members of the PPP central executive is loyal to Benazir. Zardari is meeting some of them for the first time. Benazir dictated her orders to them, Zardari says all decisions are being made collectively and through consensus. He says nobody can replace Benazir with her knowledge and experience – “we need all the brains we can muster to take the right decisions,” he says. In every sentence he invokes her name and her memory.

Zardari, along with every other Sindhi and perhaps the majority of Pakistanis, is convinced that the government, the army and the intelligence services were involved in Benazir’s murder. Despite heated government denials, the bumbling mistakes made by the regime since her death and the total lack of remorse shown by President Pervez Musharraf and his political partners have only further convinced the public of a conspiracy. Zardari and the PPP insist that nobody had the capacity to carry out such a murder except the state, the so-called establishment.

Zardari and the PPP also fear that Musharraf and the military will never allow general elections to take place on February 18 because there will be a landslide sympathy vote for the PPP. All the indications are that he is right.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) is in a panic, their leaders dare not come out of their houses for fear of crowds beating them up or blaming them for Benazir’s death. Some PML politicians are trying to whip up Punjabi-Sindhi ethnic tensions – a sure fire way to get the polls postponed. Nobody rules out more political assassinations either.

Zardari asks, that when Musharraf has done everything possible in the past nine months to stop the PPP juggernaut – declared an emergency, suspended the constitution, imprisoned thousands of people, curbed the media and sacked Supreme Court judges – how can he now allow free and fair elections.

Equally the military could try and rig the elections but that is more difficult now than it was on the original election date of January 8. Now there is greater public vigilance and much greater hatred for the regime. Zardari does not doubt that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) will use the next eight weeks to try and break the PPP.

Either way, Zardari and the PPP have to find answers and a strategy to deflect all these possibilities. The distraught mourners also expect answers. Beyond the gates of Naudero, the stream of people head to the massive mock Mughal tomb three miles away.

Here, Benazir is buried next to her beloved father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged by the military in 1979. Just four weeks ago she had come to lay a wreath at her father’s grave and as if full of premonitions, had marked out exactly where she wanted to be buried, telling attendants to fence off the area.

There are moving displays of public grief at her graveside, but even more there is boiling public anger. The noise is deafening as men and women walk in together chanting not prayers, but slogans against Musharraf. Two black banners hanging above her grave, say it all. One whispers “Benazir – the unblemished and innocent”, the other cries out, “we will take revenge on her killers”.

Her grave is covered in a mountain of rose petals – outside flower vendors say her death has sucked up all the roses in Pakistan like a giant vacuum cleaner. Some people pick a rose petal of her grave, carefully smell its fragrance and then pocket it. The memory of her and the manner of her death will haunt Pakistan for years to come.

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