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.