Posted by: John Elliott | September 6, 2008

Dynastic excesses make Zardari Pakistan’s new president

This surely is a case of dynastic politics gone mad. Asif Ali Zardari, who has today been elected president of Pakistan, has no political experience and no record of public service. Instead, he is widely regarded as one of Pakistan’s most self-serving and corrupt public figures – a reputation he earned as “Mr 10%” when Benazir Bhutto, his late wife, was prime minister in the 1990s.

The BBC this morning describes him as  “the most mistrusted politician in the country”. The Financial Times has recently reported that he was suffering last year from dementia and severe depression. When he looked like a possible prime minister after his wife’s assassination last December, a Pakistani businessman visiting Delhi told me it would “make Pakistan a more expensive place to do business”.

Dynasties are rarely good for a country’s political development. While individual family members sometimes provide stable political leadership, the automatic succession by relatives blunts the operation of democracies and can, as in Pakistan today, promote the wrong candidate.

While Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi have both proved to be constructive leaders of India’s Congress Party, there are other more able politicians in the party whose rise to the top has been blocked – currently by the assumption that Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv’s and Sonia’s son, will soon be prime minister. This is not to say that Rahul Gandhi should not become a political leader, but that he should work his way to the top instead of being anointed.

Elsewhere in India, dynasties are booming as politicians at all levels bring their sons, daughters and other relatives into political life. Often this is done to protect the family’s illicit riches, and to sustain powers of patronage.

But I can think of no example in India to match the damage that Zardari’s dynastic assumption of power can do to Pakistan. His rise to the top began in the 1980s when he was a Karachi playboy, well known and popular on the polo party circuit. He came from a little known family based in the Bhutto family’s home area of  Larkana, and was selected by Bhutto’s aunt as a safe arranged-marriage husband.

People who knew him before his marriage say little against him. But his reputation has been in continual decline since then. In addition to widely believed allegations of corruption, he was also accused of authorising the murder of Benazir’s brother, Murtaza,  in 1996 – which, of course, he denied. He spent eleven years in jail on corruption and murder charges, but was released in 2004 as a result of US-encouraged talks between General Pervez Musharraf, the then-president, and Bhutto. The charges have now been waived. 

I under-estimated his rise to power after Bhutto’s assassination. In a blog titled Dynasty Brand Bhutto lives on in Pakistan, I suggested that Zardari’s chance of weakening the dynastic blood line had been offset by the installation of Bilawal, his and Bhutto’s 19-year old university student son, as chairman of the family-controlled Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP).

But Zardari cleverly had himself elected co-chairman, and has played a skilful political game. He has sidelined Bhutto loyalists in the PPP, while cashing in on his status in the Bhutto dynasty. That has led to his election today as Pakistan’s president – an event that was unthinkable just a few weeks ago.

Pessimists now fear that Zardari will play politics and promote his relatives to form a new dynasty, rather than leaving the elected government to govern. That would lead to chaotic and corrupt government at a time when urgent moves are needed to stem a rising tide of Taliban violence and turn round the ailing economy – inflation stands at 25% and the rupee is declining.

Optimists hope that he will work with the US (where he has built up some close links), and with Pakistan’s army, to tackle the Islamic militancy and improve relations with Afghanistan – and that he will back policies to tackle the economic crisis and harness foreign aid to develop the country’s poorest regions.

Nothing Zardari has done in his life so far justifies such optimism. The US and the army however have no option but to work with him. The alternative is another military coup.


  1. […] as it tells the story of the assassination 14 years ago of her father, Murtaza Bhutto – in which her uncle Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s current president, was allegedly involved. […]

  2. […] as it tells the story of the assassination 14 years ago of her father, Murtaza Bhutto – in which her uncle Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s current president, was allegedly involved. […]

  3. Yes, John, you have perfectly characterised the ascent of Zardari as a case of dynastic politics gone mad. Pakistani politicians have always messed up things and created conditions for the military to come in. This time they have touched a new low. And at a very difficult time in Pakistan’s history when its very existence is under serious threat.

    But, Zardari, the wily fox, has already started speaking the language of the US. He has called for a ban on the Taliban. With the US behind him, he thinks the Army will not dare to depose him.

    He is Pakistan’s Mr 10%. The way he is going about things, he might be left with a Pakistan which has only 10% of its existing landmass!

  4. […] More: Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Pakistan’s kingmaker — or next king?Pakistan’s coalition showdownIs Pakistan’s Zardari Mentally Fit?Bhutto Widower With Clouded Past Is Set to Lead – […]

    And see Reuters report

    And see Jemima Khan in The Independent –

    “He has long had memory problems. In the past he has been unable to recall whether he was the owner of a multimillion-pound Surrey estate (he thought not, but later took possession of it) or if $60m (£34m) in a frozen Swiss bank account was actually his. He also thought that he had graduated from the London School of Economics, or was it the London School of Business Studies? There are no records of his doing either.

    The doctors’ diagnoses of severe mental ill-health rid Zardari of his corruption case in the UK. Last November’s National Reconciliation Ordinance, brokered by the Americans to allow Bhutto’s return to Pakistan and passed by Musharraf, rid him of the rest. It also guaranteed him lifelong immunity from prosecution for corruption. He appears to have made medical history and rid himself of his dementia in time to become President. The only thing he can’t shake off is his appalling reputation.

    Zardari has long been dogged by allegations of crime and corruption. In 2003, a Swiss magistrate found him guilty in absentia of laundering $10m. Musharraf’s National Accountability Bureau estimated that he had looted up to $1.5bn from the treasury during his wife’s two terms in office. In 1990, he was in trouble for allegedly tying a remote-controlled bomb to the leg of a businessman and sending him into a bank to withdraw money from his account as a pay-off. More sinisterly, he was charged with complicity in the murder of his brother-in-law Murtaza Bhutto, but the case was never tried. He was also implicated in the 1996 murder of a judge, Justice Nizam Ahmed, and his lawyer son.”

    And Tariq Ali in The Guardian –

    “Characteristically, one of Zardari’s first acts after his party’s victory in the February polls was to appoint Shoaib Suddle (, the senior police officer connected to the Murtaza Bhutto ambush and killing, as the boss of the Federal Intelligence Agency. Loyalty is always repaid in full”.

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