Monday, September 8, 2008

Zardari - A fruitcake? Call the Men in white coats!


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Asif Ali Zardari, the man poised to become Pakistan's next president, is still known as "Mr. 10 per cent" because of corruption allegations. Now his own lawyers say he may have suffered from mental health problems within the past year.

That has left many Pakistanis wondering: Is this the best man for the job?

"People have short memories, but not that short," said Rafat Saeed, 42, as he parked his car in the bustling city of Karachi following a week of political turmoil and relentless violence by Islamic militants.

"His name is synonymous with corruption!"

Friends and family say Zardari, widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is fine now and fit to rule. But the questions over his psychological state are not likely to go away soon.

The United States and other Western nations nervously watched the ruling coalition collapse this week after the two main parties forced Musharraf - a close ally in the war on terrorism - to resign as president rather than face impeachment.

Zardari's party is now in a position to dominate the five-month-old civilian government, especially if the 53-year-old Zardari, recently cleared of all graft charges, is elected president by lawmakers in a Sept. 6 vote, as is widely expected.

If he wins, he will be one of the most powerful civilian leaders in Pakistan's 61-year history, retaining many of the powers accumulated during Musharraf's nine-year rule, from the right to dissolve Parliament to appointing heads of the armed forces.

But he has many demons in his past.

With $60 million in a Swiss bank account, corruption allegations dating to his wife's time in power will not go away any time soon. Then, in recent days, questions emerged about the state of Zardari's mental health.

In a corruption case brought against him by the Pakistani government, Zardari's own lawyers told a London court last year that he recently suffered from dementia and other psychological problems - an apparent attempt to delay proceedings.

They claimed it was the result of years spent in Pakistani jails - where Zardari says he was placed in solitary confinement, tortured and living in fear for his life before he was released in 2004. The claims of mental illness were first reported in the Financial Times.

Friends, family and party members insist, however, that he's healthy now and fit to rule.

"He was under stress, no doubt," said Wajid Hasan, Pakistan's ambassador in Britain and a longtime friend of Zardari's, adding that the diagnosis is now more than a year old.

"He was never prescribed drugs, he only received counselling," Hasan said. "I have spent long periods of time with him in the past two years ... He's been alert. He's been steady."

But his political rivals disagree.

"A 'patient' shouldn't be allowed to run for president," argued Sadiqul Farooq, spokesman for the party headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the junior party in the coalition that walked out this week.

Zardari, who earned the nickname "Mr. 10 per cent" while serving as minister for investment and environment when Bhutto was prime minister, was accused of pocketing commissions on contracts - from Polish tractors to licenses to import gold.

He says the allegations were part of a smear campaign to keep Bhutto from returning from self-exile after her government collapsed in 1996.

Pakistani investigators accused them at one point of spiriting $1.5 billion out of the country.

Swiss prosecutor Daniel Zappelli said Thursday that some $60 million that had been in Swiss bank accounts since the 1990s would be unfrozen, following a request by Pakistani authorities.

He declined to identify the owner of the funds, citing privacy rules. But Hassan Habib at the Pakistani Embassy in Bern said he believed it belonged to "the late prime minister Bhutto, or her husband, or it was a joint account."

Among the skepticism, some in Pakistan are willing to cut Zardari some slack.

Imran Ibrahim, a 27-year-old stockbroker, notes that few Pakistani political leaders are squeaky clean, either using their position to line their own pockets or to help enrich family and friends.

"No one is free of flaws," Ibrahim said. "I think he's better than many of the others out there. Plus, he was the husband of Benazir Bhutto, who dreamed of a prosperous Pakistan. He'll live out her dream, or at least he'll try."

Bhutto was killed in a Dec. 27 attack as she was campaigning for parliamentary elections. Zardari immediately took the reins of her Pakistan People's Party, surprising many as he rallied supporters.

A former polo player from a wealthy landowning family, Zardari had shown little interest in politics, but quickly proved it wasn't due to lack of skill. By forming an unlikely alliance with Sharif, a bitter rival, they forced Musharraf from power.

The moment the former military ruler was gone, however, rifts in the coalition emerged.

Sharif accused Zardari of breaking promises to immediately restore judges ousted by Musharraf or to dramatically scale back the powers of the presidency.

Eventually, Sharif quit the coalition, saying his party would prefer to sit in the opposition.

Zardari's People's Party has begun forging new partnerships with smaller parties in Parliament, which could make it even more dominant.

In March, Pakistani courts acquitted Zardari in the last case still pending against him, involving the import of a German luxury limousine. When the government told judicial authorities in Switzerland and Britain that no crime had been committed, the European courts had little choice but to end their proceedings.
Associated Press reporters Stephen Graham in Islamabad, Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Babar Dogar in Lahore, Khalid Tanveer in Multan, Paisley Dodds in London and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.
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