Pakistan's Next President Is a Category 5 Disaster September 2, 2008; Page A21
If there's a case to be made against democracy, few countries make it better than Pakistan.
On Saturday, Pakistani legislators will elect a new president to replace Pervez Musharraf, the general-turned-strongman who resigned the office last month.
In one corner there is Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a former journalist and one-time political prisoner of Mr. Musharraf who is nonetheless running as the candidate of the general's old party. Mr. Mushahid, probably the best of the bunch, stands next to no chance of winning.
In another corner there is Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, candidate of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party. Mr. Sharif -- whose record includes bankrupting his country, presiding over a disastrous military campaign against India, and attempting to implement Sharia law while awarding himself near-dictatorial powers -- has made it clear he intends to gut the powers of the presidency should he return to office.
And then there is Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and leader of the Pakistan People's Party. Mr. Zardari, who has compared himself to Jesus (an innocent accused of crimes he did not commit), is easily one of the most notorious figures in the long parade of horribles that make up the country's political history. He is, of course, expected to win Saturday's ballot handily.
Just how bad is Mr. Zardari? It would be a relief if it were true that he was merely suffering from dementia, a diagnosis offered by two New York psychiatrists last year. But that diagnosis seems to have been produced mainly with a view toward defending himself against corruption charges in a British court.
Mr. Zardari -- who earned the moniker "Mr. 10%" for allegedly demanding kickbacks during his wife's two terms in office -- has long been dogged by accusations of corruption. In 2003, a Swiss magistrate found him and Mrs. Bhutto guilty of laundering $10 million. Mr. Zardari has admitted to owning a 355-acre estate near London, despite coming from a family of relatively modest means and reporting little income at the time it was purchased. A 1998 report by the New York Times's John Burns suggests he may have made off with as much as $1.5 billion in kickbacks. This was at a time when his wife was piously claiming to represent the interests of Pakistan's impoverished masses and denouncing corrupt leaders who "leave the cupboard bare."
It's an open question whether Mr. Zardari will be more or less restrained in his behavior if he's elected: His return to politics has meant the dropping of all charges against him and the release of millions in frozen assets. (The presidency will also confer legal immunity.) That may make him one of the few men in Pakistan to get richer this year: The economy, which grew in an unprecedented way under Mr. Musharraf, has tanked under civilian management. The Karachi stock exchange has lost about a third of its value and the currency about a fifth in recent months. Markets often have better memories than voters.
It's also an open question whether Pakistan's increasingly dire security outlook will focus Mr. Zardari's mind on the urgent tasks of governance. Mr. Zardari has sought to parley himself internationally as a pro-Western candidate, and maybe he is. Yet over the weekend the Pakistani government agreed to stop its air strikes on the Taliban, in exchange for which Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a religious party, agreed to throw its support to Mr. Zardari. The Taliban has used previous cease-fires to regroup and re-arm for operations against both Afghanistan and Islamabad.
Then there is al Qaeda, now openly endeavoring to use its last redoubts in Pakistan to take over the country. Last month, Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a long broadcast (in English, no less) denouncing Mr. Musharraf as an American tool and calling on Pakistan's army to come over to his side.
That call was unlikely to be heeded against Mr. Musharraf, who could count on the loyalty of his troops. But Mr. Zardari is a caricature of everything that's morally bankrupt with the country's Westernized elite, and thus an inviting propaganda target for al Qaeda and the Taliban. It doesn't help, either, that they are working fertile political soil: 71% of Pakistanis oppose cooperating with the U.S. in counterterrorism, and 51% oppose fighting the Taliban at all, according to a June poll.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban feed on chaos, and a Zardari presidency will almost certainly provide more of it. For Pakistanis, this is a self-inflicted wound and a rebuke to their democracy. For the rest of world, it's a matter of hoping that Pakistan will somehow muddle through. For now, however, this looks like a Category 5 hurricane, dark and vast and visible just offshore.