Pakistan's Unlikely President

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PTV via Reuters TV / Reuters

Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is sworn in as President in Islamabad on Sept. 9, 2008

The elation on the face of Asif Ali Zardari was not hard to explain. Dressed in one of his many tailored pin-striped suits and flashing his trademark teeth-baring smile, he had come to Islamabad's vast and ornate presidential palace to be sworn in as Pakistan's head of state — an event quite unthinkable just nine months ago, when Zardari languished in exile after years in prison on corruption charges. Zardari, who was dubbed "Mr. 10%" during the tenure of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, as Prime Minister, returned to Pakistan late last year, the night Bhutto was assassinated. She, too, had returned from exile under a U.S.-brokered deal with general turned President Pervez Musharraf. But Bhutto's assassination last December catapulted Zardari, as decreed in her will, to the leadership of her Pakistan People's Party. The PPP triumphed at the elections and now leads a coalition government; the long-standing charges against Zardari have been dropped, courtesy of an amnesty issued by Musharraf earlier this year; and now he has become the most powerful civilian in Pakistan.

Zardari could scarcely conceal his delight from the moment he stepped into the high-ceilinged hall where Musharraf had held court over the past seven years. Taking the oath of office, Benazir Bhutto's controversial widower and political heir raised his hand to salute the applause rising from the assembled crowd of party supporters. Having been tapped for the presidency by Pakistan's national and provincial legislatures, Zardari now faces tough questions as to how he will confront the twin perils of a sinking economy and rising militancy.

The swearing-in ceremony was brief — Zardari claimed the presidency in the name of "the martyr Benazir Bhutto" as the couple's three children looked on with rising emotion, while their aunt, Benazir's sister Sanam, collapsed into tears as a military band played the national anthem and party supporters saluted Benazir's memory.

In last weekend's presidential election, Zardari won convincingly, securing comfortable majorities in Parliament and three of the four regional assemblies, all of which are now effectively under the control of President Zardari and his party. For the PPP, this marks the "completion of democracy," but analysts are concerned about the extent to which Zardari is trying to concentrate power in his own hands. Musharraf had remade the presidency as a vehicle to legitimize his own dictatorship, and with the general's resignation last month, Zardari stands to inherit the wide-ranging powers amassed by his predecessor, including the right to sack Parliament and appoint army chiefs. "It has made him the most powerful civilian President one can imagine," says Talat Masood, a retired general turned military analyst. "It is an extraordinary irony today that, of all people, Asif Zardari has come to wield so much power." (See photos of the rise and fall of Pervez Musharraf here.)

But Musharraf has also bequeathed challenges that will test Zardari's capacity to govern one of the world's most unstable countries. The economy is in poor shape, with inflation at 25%, a chronic electricity shortage, a slowdown in growth, evaporating foreign-exchange reserves and a rupee trading around record lows against the dollar.

Of even greater concern are the expanding ambitions of Islamist militants based in the tribal areas along the Afghan border and in the Swat valley. A brutal reminder of that threat came on Saturday when, as lawmakers were voting for the presidency, a truck laden with explosives rammed a police checkpoint on the edge of Peshawar, killing 35 people. It was the latest in a series of recent attacks that have included Taliban marksmen firing on the Prime Minister's motorcade last week.

At a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai after his inauguration, Zardari reaffirmed his commitment to taming militancy. "We are in the eye of the storm," he said. "I consider that an opportunity. I intend to take that and make it our strength. We intend to take the world with us in developing the future of Pakistan and changing the future of our neighbors also."

In recent weeks, the PPP-led government has abandoned failed negotiations with the militants in favor of the use of force, mounting an intense military operation in the Bajaur tribal agency and targeting militants in Swat. The strong rhetoric, however, has failed to produce a clear policy. "I doubt very much if they have any genuine policy except that which the U.S. has demanded," says Masood. "To be fair, there are no easy solutions." But, as Masood laments, Parliament has yet to debate the matter, almost seven months after the election.

Zardari faces the challenge of juggling Washington's demands for greater action against militants and domestic opposition to the use of force against extremists. The U.S. has grown increasingly frustrated with Pakistan's failure to wipe out al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries along the Afghan border, but a recent flurry of American attacks into Pakistan territory, including a commando raid in South Waziristan last week, has triggered widespread criticism. "The friction between increased demands from Washington and a skeptical public will continue," says Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent military analyst.

It remains unclear whether Zardari's election will help stabilize the situation. For five months, the coalition government led by his party has been seized by internal wrangling. Zardari's coalition with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif collapsed over the President's refusal to reinstate all judges fired last year by Musharraf. But Zardari united with Nawaz Sharif to oust Musharraf and then selectively reinstated judges in order to close that issue. Now, his supporters say, Zardari has successfully ended the political turmoil of the past 18 months and united most Pakistanis behind him. But critics aren't so sure. "Mr. Zardari is a controversial if not divisive figure," says Farzana Shaikh, Pakistan expert at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. "His election is hardly the best thing for Pakistan in the circumstances. In fact, I would be inclined to think that it is the worst thing when it desperately needs some semblance of consensus."