By Matthew Rosenberg and Zahid Hussain
Islamabad, 26 February 2009 (The Wall Street Journal) – When Zardari won the presidency last year, he vowed to unite this fractious country after nearly a decade of military rule. Instead, Zardari is emerging as a divisive figure at a time when Pakistan faces a rising Islamist insurgency and a stuttering economy.
The widower of slain Benazir Bhutto is alienating both allies and foes. Even his personal style has turned off supporters of his wife – some of whom serve in his Government but are now reluctant to deal with him directly. At meetings in recent months, according to several witnesses, he lashed out at senior ministers, calling Sherry Rehman a “witch” [Urdu and Punjabi word: "Jadoogarni"] and Senator Mian Raza Rabbani “impotent” and sterile (Urdu and Punjabi word:
Pakistan has now plunged into fresh political turmoil when the Supreme Court barred from elected office former Nawaz Sharif, the country’s leading opposition
politician, citing a past criminal conviction. The Court also barred Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz
Sharif, from office, effectively unseating him as Chief Minister of Punjab. Following the
decision, Zardari dismissed Punjab’s state government and imposed executive rule in the province, sparking demonstrations in several cities.
“It is a political decision given on the directives of Zardari,” Nawaz Sharif said at a news conference at his residence in Lahore. “It is a conspiracy to keep me out of politics.”
Several government officials and Western diplomats say the friction caused by Zardari’s rule is weakening the Government and diminishing Pakistan’s ability to solve the thicket of challenges it
Since taking over the presidency last September, Zardari has surrounded himself with a small cadre of advisers, many of them unelected, including family members and associates whom Zardari got to know in jail or in exile, leaving even Government officials unsure of who runs what. Among the members of Zardari’s inner circle: his former physician, Dr Asim Hussain, who in addition to running a hospital in Karachi is the Government’s adviser on petroleum affairs and runs the oil ministry, despite having no background in the industry.
Zardari emerged as Pakistan’s most powerful politician in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s December 2007 assassination. Previously, he was best known for his love of polo and for corruption allegations that made the nickname “Mr. Ten Percent” stick with the public. Zardari nonetheless led the PPP to victory in elections last February 2008.
Pakistan’s mounting problems not only worry the new Administration of President Barack Obama. They also have contributed to a sharp decline in Zardari’s own popularity. Recent opinion polls indicate the President’s approval rating has sunk to a level near that of Musharraf, ousted from the presidency by Zardari and Sharif last summer.
Even Zardari’s relationship with his handpicked PM Gillani has become strained of late, several
Government officials say. Associates of Gillani say the PM has grown frustrated at Zardari’s failure to fulfill his promise to reduce the presidency to its traditional role as head of state, allowing the PM to take a bigger role in decision-making and appointments.
The infighting in the Government contrasts with the tenor of Government under Musharraf. He became a US favorite by keeping a lid on intramural squabbles and making it clear he was the sole decision-maker in Pakistan.
Zardari often cites as motivation the 11 years he spent in prison in Pakistan on corruption and murder allegations. He says these were politically motivated; most of the allegations were dropped under an amnesty deal with Musharraf.
Western officials say they view Zardari’s record of Government to date as mixed. They credit him with keeping the military focused on fighting and providing intelligence to aid missile strikes to the US drone aircrafts. His position is a risky one because of the widespread outrage in Pakistan over the US attacks on Pakistan.
Some of those who visit Zardari say they are frequently subjected to boorish behavior.
At a meeting in mid-January 2009, Zardari taunted Senator Raza Rabbani, Pakistan’s Provincial Coordination Minister, calling him “impotent” after the two disagreed on how to approach allied
political parties [ANP, MQM, JUI-F] about running certain candidates in upcoming Senate elections. “You always say no, and that is a reason why you don’t have children,” the President told the 55-year-old Senator, according to multiple witnesses.
In previous meetings, Zardari has called a senior Cabinet Minister Sherry Rehman a “witch” on many occasions. He has told others to “shut up” or mocked their personal foibles, divorces, affairs. “This is what you come to expect at the Presidency. You go there and you are insulted,” said another Senator who was at the mid-January meeting.
Officials say Zardari’s behavior is putting off people to the point where they actively try to avoid working with him. That is keeping the Government from getting things done, they say, citing everything from shaping economic policy to deciding the future of the tribal areas, which are ruled by the federal government.
PPP Spokesman Farhatullah Babar said such criticisms were motivated by opposition to the President’s reform agenda. He described Mr. Zardari’s approach to leadership as: “Forgive but do not forget the past, arrange for the present and face the future.”
Marc Champion contributed to this article.