Absent President Ignites Rumors In Pakistan

Dec 11, 2011
Originally published on December 12, 2011 6:59 am

Pakistan is a country where rumors are always flowing. So when President Asif Ali Zardari was rushed to a hospital in the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 6, it set off all sorts of speculation.

His aides are doing their best to quell talk that he might step down. They say Zardari has been undergoing treatment and tests for a pre-existing heart ailment, and is recovering well in Dubai.

But that hasn't stopped politicians from considering what Pakistan's political landscape might look like without him.

Zardari won the presidency three years ago with an outpouring of public sympathy following the assassination of his wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

He's had a tumultuous term in office that has included widespread violence in Pakistan, the spillover effects of the war in Afghanistan and increasing friction with the United States. And like all Pakistani civilian leaders, he often appears to have less authority than Pakistan's military, the country's most powerful institution.

'Memogate' Scandal

His latest problem is a scandal known as "memogate." It refers to a letter that Pakistan's ambassador in Washington allegedly passed to Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The letter was sent in May, shortly after U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The U.S. carried out the raid without giving the Pakistanis advance notice, and angered many in Pakistan.

The memo asked for U.S. help in preventing a military takeover in Pakistan, and promised that in return, Pakistan would align its policies with those of the U.S., especially when it came to Afghanistan.

Akram Sheikh, a senior advocate before the Supreme Court of Pakistan, believes that Zardari himself approved the memo. Sheikh says that if that's true, then the president should be charged with something worse than treason for "waging war against Pakistan and conspiring against Pakistan's solidarity [and] sovereignty."

"This constitutes a violation on the part of Mr. Asif Ali Zardari of the oath of his office," says Sheikh.

Zardari was scheduled to appear before a joint session of parliament to testify about the memo affair. His sudden departure for Dubai fueled speculation he was trying to avoid what was sure to be a difficult public appearance.

Zardari's Son: Treatment Going Well

Mushahid Hussain Syed, is the secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League's so-called Q faction, and his party belongs to Zardari's ruling coalition. Syed says he spoke directly with the president's son, Bilawal, about Zardari's physical condition.

"It's not life-threatening," Syed says. "[Bilawal] said that the treatment is proceeding well, and that he expects that his father will be back soon within a matter of days after the completion of the treatment."

Zardari supporters insist that the president is coming back, and say he has nothing to fear from a parliamentary inquiry.

Opposition parties sense that the episode will leave Zardari weakened politically.

Ahsan Iqbal is the deputy secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League's N faction, named for its leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Zardari's departure could weaken his Peoples Party of Pakistan, the PPP, and provide an opening for its rivals, says Iqbal.

"It will be a new beginning for the Peoples' Party because the past three-and-a-half years have been dominated by his presidency and by his leadership of the party, which has come under a lot of criticism," Iqbal says.

Regardless of Zardari's political fate, his coalition ally, Mushahid Husain Syed, says he thinks Pakistan's civilian political culture has gotten stronger and will survive.

"Please don't forget that Mr. Zardari was an accidental president," he said. "He became president after the assassination of his wife, Ms. Benazir Bhutto. So in Pakistan, the political system has a certain resilience and a certain continuity, which I think would remain unaffected."

Many observers think Pakistan's political system will need all the resilience it can muster should Zardari resign. Pakistan's constitution says elections for a new president would have to be held within 30 days.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are also following a president who is under pressure in Pakistan. Or to be more precise, we should say Pakistan's president is under pressure, but outside the country. President Asif Ali Zardari travelled last week to a hospital in the Persian Gulf city of Dubai. Aides say he is recovering well after undergoing treatment for a heart condition. His move, though, started rumors that he left the country to avoid an investigation. However strongly those rumors were denied, they prompted politicians to consider what Pakistan's politics would look like without Zardari.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Zardari won the presidency three years ago on an outpouring of public sympathy following the assassination of his wife, the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Since then he's had a tumultuous term in office at a time when Pakistan's civilian government has been dominated by its powerful military.

His latest problem was a scandal known as Memogate, named for a letter that was allegedly passed to Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, through Pakistan's ambassador in Washington. That was in May, just after U.S. commandos had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The memo asked for U.S. help in preventing a takeover by the military, and it promised in return to align Pakistan's policies with those of the U.S., especially when it came to Afghanistan. Akram Sheikh is a senior advocate before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. He believes that Zardari himself approved the memo, and says if that's true, then the president should be charged with something worse than treason.

AKRAM SHEIKH: Waging war against Pakistan and conspiring against Pakistan's solidarity, sovereignty. And this constitutes a violation on the part of Mr. Asif Ali Zardari of the oath of his office.

FLINTOFF: Zardari was scheduled to appear before a joint session of parliament to testify about the memo affair. His sudden departure for Dubai fueled speculation that he was trying to evade damaging and legally dangerous questions. Not so, says Mushahid Hussain Syed, a Zardari ally. His party belongs to Zardari's ruling coalition, and he says he spoke directly with the president's son, Bilawal, who says it's a medical matter, not a legal one.

MUSHAHID HUSSAIN SYED: It's not life-threatening, and he said that treatment is proceeding well and expects that his father would be back soon within a matter of days after the completion of the treatment.

FLINTOFF: Zardari supporters insist that the president is coming back, and say he has nothing to fear from a parliamentary inquiry. Opposition parties scent political blood in the water, though. Ahsan Iqbal is the deputy secretary general of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League. He says Zardari's departure could weaken his People's Party of Pakistan, the PPP, and provide an opening for his rivals.

AHSAN IQBAL: It will be a new beginning for People's Party because the past three and a half years have been dominated by his presidency and by his leadership of the party, which has come under a lot of criticism.

FLINTOFF: Zardari's critics say he has undermined the PPP, which was built up by his late wife's family, and hurt the country's political culture in the process. Mohammad Malick is the editor of the English language daily paper The News. He says Zardari's departure could change the country's political landscape.

MOHAMMAD MALICK: I think it might be good for the country. We would have a lot more sanity. Mr. Zardari is brilliant in carrying out local political moves. But unfortunately they're moves based on power politics rather than popular politics.

FLINTOFF: Whether Zardari returns or resigns, his coalition ally, Mushahid Husain Syed, says he thinks Pakistan's civilian political culture has gotten stronger over the years and will survive.

SYED: Please don't forget that Mr. Zardari was an accidental president. He became president after the assassination of his wife, Ms. Benazir Bhutto. So in Pakistan the political system has a certain resilience and a certain continuity, which I think would remain unaffected by individuals being here and there.

FLINTOFF: Many observers think Pakistan's political system will need all the resilience it can muster should Zardari resign. Pakistan's constitution says elections for a new president would have to be held in 30 days. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.