Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, under threat from a memo seeking US help in preventing a coup by Pakistan’s powerful generals, has never managed to dispel the notion he is an accidental president.
Zardari was elected in 2008 on the back of a sympathy vote after his far more charismatic wife, former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated shortly after returning from self-exile late the previous year.
His rule has been a rocky one ever since and his relationship with the country’s most powerful institution — the military — has become increasingly strained.
The public spilt between his civilian government and the military widened this week after Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani sacked a top defense bureaucrat, prompting the military to warn of “grievous consequences.”
Speculation has been rife since Zardari’s return from medical -treatment in Dubai last month that he would step down in the face of pressure from the military.
Military sources said that while they would dearly like Zardari to go, it should be through constitutional means, not another of the coups that have marked Pakistan’s almost 65 years of independence.
One route could be the memo, into whose origins the Pakistani Supreme Court has ordered an investigation.
If a link with him is shown, it would likely cost Zardari his job and throw an already unstable Pakistan into greater turmoil.
The Supreme Court has also threatened his party’s government with contempt proceedings that could lead to the fall of senior officials including the prime minister if it does not take action on long-standing corruption cases against Zardari.
Zardari, long plagued by accusations of rampant graft, has never connected with Pakistanis in the way his wife did.
That was all too clear when epic floods raged through the nation in 2010, inundating 20 percent of the country and making millions homeless.
The president set off on a trip to Europe as the disaster was unfolding and made no immediate effort to return home. While in France, Zardari visited a chateau he owns in Normandy.
The election of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has long opposed military involvement in politics, in 2008, raised hopes the nation could shake off the legacy of decades of intermittent army rule and turn back a rising tide of Islamist militancy.
However, Zardari has failed to deliver since then, dismissed as an uncaring playboy — another feudal landlord who ignores the needs of the masses — while Pakistan lurched from crisis to crisis, from crippling power cuts to suicide bombings.
He has always appeared to lack the political resolve to push through reforms that could help the fragile economy and make it less dependent on foreign aid.
However, while his job as president has become largely ceremonial, his leadership of the ruling PPP gives him strong political influence.
Some Western officials concluded early on that he lacked the skills to lead a country seen as critical to Washington’s global efforts to tackle militancy.
In a 2008 diplomatic cable carried by WikiLeaks, then-chief of the British Defence Staff Jock Stirrup said Zardari was “clearly a numbskull.”
The unpopularity of his government may have only served to strengthen generals after Zardari committed the cardinal sin for any Pakistani politician of alienating the military.