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Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, is under mounting pressure from all sides.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Corruption cases, a scandal involving a memo, a ferocious opposition and rumors about an imminent resignation are lingering over the head of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
But Zardari’s spokesperson, Farhatullah Babar, sitting in his small party office, still appears undisturbed.
“All this hullabaloo is related to the senate elections,” he said dismissively.
Political analysts predict that Zardari’s party will win a near or simple majority of the senate seats in elections scheduled for March because it dominates the national and provincial assemblies that elect the senators.
But Pakistan’s political scene has always been one of contradictions and as Zardari recovers from an illness in Dubai, opposition of all stripes is lining up against him.
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A senior Pakistani intelligence official told GlobalPost that Zardari would bow under the pressure of the army and step down after his return from sick leave. A presidential aide, meanwhile, confirmed that the army is trying to ouster the president, but added that, “he will not surrender so easily.” Both sources asked to remain anonymous.
There would be no love lost between Pakistan’s 56-year old president and the military, the intelligence official said.
“The army never liked or trusted Zardari,” he said. He lamented how the Zardari administration dealt with the country’s plethora of economic and governmental ills. “These problems are being blamed on the army.”
But it was not until Zardari unexpectedly left for Dubai on Dec. 6 amidst conflicting explanations by his party officials that the rumor mill went into overdrive.
A statement by Zardari’s physician, Khaldoun Taha, issued on Dec. 14 did little to calm the frenzy. Taha said that the president had been admitted to the American Hospital in Dubai with a “chief complaint of left arm numbness and twitching with a transient episode of loss of consciousness that lasted for a few seconds.”
But Zardari’s medical tests turned out to be within “normal range,” Taha said. No date for his return has been set and Zardari is, at the request of his doctors, now resting until further notice, Babar said.
When he does return, he will face a storm of opposition. The most intriguing one is “Memogate,” as the Pakistani media dubs it. It revolves around a memo asking for Washington’s help in preventing a military take-over of Zardari’s administration shortly after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May. In return it offers to eliminate a wing in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, charged with maintaining links with Afghan insurgency groups, other changes in Pakistan’s national security set-up and American soldiers would be given the “green light” to hunt down Afghan militant leaders.
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A Pakistani-American businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, first revealed the existence of the memo. He said that Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, asked him to deliver the memo in Washington. Haqqani resigned last month in an attempt to quell the controversy, although he denies any links to the memo.
A parliamentary committee and the country’s Supreme Court are now investigating the Memogate scandal. But even if the memo is genuine it might not be easy to link it to Zardari, Pakistani analysts say.
Zardari will also have to deal with the Supreme Court’s insistence that the government ask Swiss authorities to reopen money-laundering cases against the president. Zardari and 8,040 other politicians, bureaucrats and political workers were absolved of prosecution in 2007 in a power-sharing arrangement between the then-president General Pervez Musharraf and Zardari’s late wife Benazir Bhutto. Two years later Pakistan's Supreme Court declared the terms of the arrangement void.
Meanwhile several opposition political parties are demanding Zardari’s resignation and hope for parliamentary elections before the senate vote.
“We are not new to the phenomena of some elements stopping the PPP [the president’s party] from getting political strength in the parliament,” Babar said. He wouldn’t specify who those “elements” are but referred to the late 1980s when he said the ISI was instrumental in building alliances among anti-PPP parties to oust it from power. He said that the army was now under civilian control, though many Pakistani analysts would disagree.
Asked if the intelligence agency was still behind empowering opposition parties as claimed by Pakistan’s chattering classes, the intelligence official wouldn’t confirm it, but said: “Where is smoke, is fire.”
Despite the pressure on Zardari, Babar said the president would not be deterred.
“Pakistan’s People’s Parties and president Zardari know fully well how to cross the bridge when it comes. We have crossed many bridges.”