Democracy’s revenge: Zardari confirmed as president of Pakistan

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A powerful truck bomb tore through the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad a few hours after Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s newly-elected President, addressed a joint session of Parliament on September 20. According to police sources, 53 persons were killed and more than 250 injured. The dead included the Czech ambassador to Pakistan, two Saudi citizens, a Briton and a Filipino. Two Americans were also killed, one a marine and the other an employee of the state department. Zardari said, no doubt with a view to keeping his American masters happy, that he would confront terrorism head-on. Was the blast a response to Zardari’s threat? Perhaps not, since it would have required much prior logistical preparation, but there were American marines staying at the hotel who were heading for Afghanistan shortly. They were probably the target; the fact also is that Pakistan has been plunged into civil war by the US’s demands. As more and more civilians are killed in military operations in various parts of the country, so likelihood of such attacks occurring increases.

Zardari’s maiden speech followed a series of US ground and aerial attacks inside Pakistan that have made a mockery of its sovereignty. Top officials in Islamabad, such as prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani. as well as Zardari, have made bold claims that the country’s “sovereignty” will be protected at all costs. These are brave words, but what precisely Pakistan will do is not clear. When the government and its armed forces are at war with their own people, the result is total disarray. It is, however, the election of Zardari as president that is seen as a bad omen.

Few can have imagined what Bilawal Zardari really meant during his first press conference after his mother, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated last December, when he said that “Democracy is the best revenge”. The 19-year-old Bilawal, a student at Oxford University, was named joint chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) with his father. Mr Zardari–”better known as “Mr Ten percent” because of his legendary corruption–”has been made president of Pakistan by this so-called democracy. Even by the low standards of Pakistan’s tortuous politics, it would be hard to imagine anything more depressing.

Zardari’s election as president has openly flouted several articles of Pakistan’s constitution. True, the recently ousted president, retired General Pervez Musharraf, also violated the constitution when he seized power in October 1999, but even he did not do so in connivance with the elected representatives of Pakistan or most leading figures of society. Some prominent judges, among them then Chief Justice Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui, who was nominated by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz group) as candidate for president, refused to take an oath of loyalty when Musharraf took power. Zardari was nominated by his own party, the PPP, and supported by several other political parties.

Why is Zardari unfit to be president? It is not merely his legendary corruption; he can legitimately ask whether there has ever been a single honest politician in Pakistan. Nor can he be disqualified on the basis of his low IQ; dimmer wits have occupied the presidential palace. What is most troubling is Zardari’s mental state. This is not mere conjecture. In March 2007, two New York-based psychiatrists, Stephen Reich and Philip Saltiel, prepared medical reports that were filed in a London court where Zardari was facing corruption charges. The reports stated that Zardari suffered from severe “emotional stability”, dementia (insanity, madness), amnesia (memory loss), concentration problems and major depressive disorder. The documents also stated that he had suicidal tendencies, according to the Financial Times of London (August 26, 2008).

Based on these documents the London court found Zardari to be mentally “unfit” to stand trial. Now his supporters will argue–”as has Wajid Shamsul-Hassan, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London, who is a family friend–”that that was last year and that Zardari is now mentally fit. Clearly, Mr Hassan is neither a psychiatrist nor a judge. If two psychiatrists have ruled him unfit, his mental state is cause for deep anxiety in a country where the president has his hand so close to the nuclear button. Further, in view of the court’s ruling about his mental state, the least Mr Zardari must do to allay fears is to get the same London court to certify that he is no longer as he was last year, even if the Election Commission of Pakistan refused to entertain petitions challenging his eligibility out of fear of certain consequences for the honourable commissioners’ own well-being.

Pakistan’s constitution is clear about the requirements a person must meet to be eligible to run for the post of president. Under Article 41(2), the president is required to be “qualified to be elected as a member of the National Assembly”. Article 62 elaborates that in order to qualify as a member of the National Assembly, and contest the presidential election, a person must be “of good character and is not commonly known as one who violates Islamic injunctions”; he must be “sagacious, righteous and non-profligate and honest and ameen.” Zardari’s Surrey Palace in England, the penthouse suite in Manhattan, the vast estates he controls in Pakistan, and the wealth he flaunts so openly, all testify to his profligacy and extravagant lifestyle.

Given the laundry list of charges against Zardari and his late wife that were dropped under a political deal, Zardari is anything but “honest” or “ameen”. But last June, Pakistan’s attorney general wrote to the Swiss authorities to ask them to drop charges against Zardari and Benazir because they had done “nothing illegal”, saying that the charges were “politically motivated”. The attorney general’s letter itself was politically motivated: Zardari’s party is in power; it would have been foolhardy for the attorney general to displease Zardari at this juncture. Daniel Zappelli, the Swiss prosecutor general, announced on August 27 that the money-laundering case against Zardari had been dropped and his assets, amounting to $60 million, were being released. Interestingly, Zardari had denied in the past that he ever received $60 million in kickbacks or commissions. Now he is $60 million richer in a country where less than half the people can afford two meals a day.

The Swiss announcement came as a shock to Daniel Devaud, the Geneva judge who originally investigated the charges. He has said that it should not be interpreted as a sign of Zardari’s innocence. “It would be very difficult to say that there is nothing in the files that shows there was possibly corruption going on after what I have seen in there,” Judge Devaud said. “After I heard what the general prosecutor said, I have the feeling we are talking about two different cases.”

There are other troubling questions about Zardari’s presidency. According to Article 63(a) of the constitution, a person is disqualified to be a member of the National Assembly if “he is of unsound mind and has been so declared by a competent court.” Unlike the courts in Pakistan, even if lately they have tried to show some degree of independence, the courts in London are not known to be swayed by political considerations nor can we assume that the judge or judges were bribed by Mr Zardari and co., though that is a common practice in Pakistan.

Zardari, therefore, faces two major problems: the diagnoses of two New York-based psychiatrists and his own lawyers’ submission of these reports to a court in London that accepted and acted upon them. Zardari must prove that the psychiatrists falsified their diagnoses; this is possible since corruption is endemic in the American system and psychiatrists are not above such behaviour. If the psychiatrists did indeed falsify the reports, they would surely face disciplinary action from the US Board of Psychiatrists. Zardari may have bribed the doctors to provide the diagnoses that they did, clearly not anticipating that one day these reports might come back to haunt him. That would still leave the challenge of proving that the London court was incompetent.

Equally troubling is the behaviour of members of the four provincial assemblies, the National Assembly and Senate that voted for Zardari. Were the members of these assemblies also suffering from collective amnesia and/or dementia? Are they not aware of what Judge Devaud said, or of the $60 million-worth of assets Zardari had in Swiss bank accounts? Can Zardari explain how such huge sums came to be in his Swiss bank accounts? That money was frozen by a court in Geneva in 1997 after Benazir was removed from power in November 1996 on charges of corruption during her second term as prime minister (1993 to 1996).

As “president”, Zardari now has immunity from prosecution. He is also $60 million richer and ensconsed in a plush presidential palace that might as well be located on Mars as far as most Pakistanis are concerned. His mental state, however, is a different matter; he must be watched carefully. Pakistan can ill-afford even one erratic move by a manic depressive with his finger so close to the nuclear button and his mind under the control of the Americans.

It is also evident, as some commentators have pointed out, that the Marriott bombing is an inaupicious start to Zardari’s presidential career. There is little to suggest that it is likely to get any better for Pakistan’s suffering people.

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