Asif Ali Zardari, who won the presidential election over the weekend, was sworn in today. In the election on Saturday, members the parliament and provincial assemblies voted on who would replace Perez Musharraf, who resigned last month, as president of Pakistan.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded positively to Zardari’s win, saying, “Now with a new president, I think we have got a good way forward.” She also said she was “impressed by some of the things that he said about the challenges that Pakistan faces, about the centrality of fighting terrorism, and about the fact that the terrorism fight is Pakistan’s fight and also his very strong words of friendship and alliance with the United States.”
Zardari is the widower of Benazier Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan who was assassinated last December after she had returned to Pakistan under a US-brokered arrangement in which she and her husband would be offered amnesty against charges of corruption and in return she would not challenge Musharraf’s reelection.
In a series of miscalculations that eventually led to his forced resignation, in March of last year, Musharraf suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was expected to oppose Musharraf’s plan to run for reelection while remaining head of the army. The Supreme Court reversed his decision and reinstated Chaudhry.
Musharraf won the reelection in October only after the election was boycotted by most members of parliament, many of whom walked out in protest to what they viewed as an illegitimate election. The Supreme Court was expected to rule that the election was unconstitutional since Musharraf remained head of the army at the time of the vote.
In November, Musharraf declared martial law, suspending the constitution and removing numerous judges, including members of the Supreme Court, whom he replaced with his own choices who could be expected to support his bid for power. Thousands of Musharraf’s political opponents, including peaceful demonstrators, lawyers, and human rights activists, were arrested and independent media outlets were shut down. He also issued an order that effectively prohibited the Supreme Court from challenging his reelection.
As a result, Bhutto, who had faced public criticism both for being part of a deal brokered by the U.S. and for agreeing to support Musharraf, was forced to renege and called for him to quit his office. Bhutto was then placed under house arrest.
Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister who was ousted by Musharraf in 1999 in a bloodless coup, returned from exile in November. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, announced that it would cooperate with Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party to bring an end to Musharraf’s dictatorship.
All the while Washington continued to support Musharraf and made it clear that the U.S. stood behind him. President Bush responded to criticism of his support for the dictator by saying, “he hasn’t crossed the line…. I think he truly is somebody who believes in democracy.”
Zardari took over the leadership of the PPP after Bhutto was assassinated in December.
In February, a new coalition government was elected. Zardari and Sharif agreed to work together to end Musharraf’s rule and reinstate the judges Musharraf had ousted.
Last month, after Zardari agreed with Sharif to seek his impeachment, Musharraf resigned. Zardari, however, stalled on efforts to reinstate Chaudhry and other judges, leading Sharif to withdraw his support.
Zardari is reportedly afraid that reinstating Chaudhry, with Musharraf now gone, might result in charges of corruption being revived.
Zardari has been careful not to appear too close to Washington while at the same time seeking U.S. backing. In a Washington Post column he penned last Thursday, he said, “We stand with the United States” and other victims of terrorism, but added that “Fundamentally, however, the war we are fighting is our war. This battle is for Pakistan’s soul.”
His piece did not mention a U.S. attack on Pakistani soil that reportedly resulted in the deaths of 20 people, with local residents of the village that was attacked saying most victims were women and children. The attack was strongly condemned by the Pakistan government.
U.S. relations with Pakistan have been tense since the new government was elected earlier this year, but there are some indications that Washington is willing to work with Zardari, including Rice’s response to his electoral victory.
The New York Times reported several weeks ago that the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad had been contacting Zardari, and that, by Zardari’s own account, he had been offering “advice and help”. This revelation came about when State Department officials learned of the contacts and protested at being left out of the loop. They called the contacts “unauthorized”, but it is not clear whether Khalilzad – who has also been named as a potential replacement for Afghan President Hamid Karzai – had been acting on his own initiative or whether he was working on behalf of the White House.