Artwork by Abdul Sattar Abbasi

Asif Ali Zardari — dealmaker extraordinaire

If successful, PPP leader could become the president for the second time.
Published January 23, 2024

Asif Ali Zardari was born in 1955 to a well-known Baloch family from Nawabshah, Sindh. He married Benazir Bhutto, who later became Pakistan’s first female prime minister, in 1987.

Zardari’s initiation into politics was not very successful but his career began to take off after his marriage to Benazir. In both her governments, he was appointed federal minister — first with the portfolio of environment and later with that of investment.

In 1990, he was accused of tying a bomb to a businessman’s leg and sending him into a bank to withdraw cash from his account as a pay-off. The charge was never proven and Zardari was released after spending three years in prison.

In 1996, after the dismissal of Benazir’s second government, Zardari was arrested and charged with several offences, including the murder of his brother-in-law, Murtaza Bhutto. He remained in prison for eight years and was released on bail in 2004, which was followed by his acquittal four years later.

Following his release, Zardari kept a low profile but returned to Pakistan in December 2007 after Benazir’s assassination.

After the PPP’s victory in the 2008 elections, Zardari was elected as the president. During his term, the government launched the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), Aghaz-i-Huqooq-i-Balochistan package, and managed to forge a consensus for the seventh National Finance Corporation award. Moreover, with the approval of the 18th Amendment, Zardari surrendered the president’s power to dissolve Parliament.

Throughout his political career, Zardari has faced allegations of misconduct and corruption although nothing has been proven in courts. When Benazir was prime minister, he was labelled ‘Mr 10%’ over allegations that he received kickbacks and stole from the state’s coffers.

However, he is also known for having a shrewd political mind — a testament of which came when on September 8, 2013 he became the country’s first president to complete his constitutional term and hand over duties to another democratically elected president.

In recent years, Zardari has faced a slew of cases, including the Thatta Water Supply reference and the Park Lane reference, in which he remained in jail for six months before being granted bail by the Islamabad High Court on medical grounds in December 2019.

The former president maintained a low profile during the pandemic because of health issues. He became active in politics again as the Pakistan Democratic Movement — a coalition of opposition parties — began to take shape.

He has participated vigorously in the PPP’s election campaign, setting up committees to woo electables and convincing several leaders from other parties to join the PPP. He is the party’s nominee for president in the upcoming polls.

An op-ed published in Dawn last year stated: “Asif Ali Zardari is undoubtedly one of the shrewdest political figures in the country. Past master in the art of political wheeling and dealing, he has managed to maintain the party’s role as a major player in the power game, despite its eroding national status.”

Meanwhile, Zardari has said he believes no single party will be able to win a two-thirds majority in the elections, and a “national unity government” will be formed that will not be led by the PML-N.

Key stances:

• As president, Zardari signed two bills seeking stricter punishments for several crimes against women into law. The first bill sought strict punishments for giving women away in marriage under various customs and depriving them of rightful inheritance. The second bill sought stern punishments for those involved in acid attacks.

• Like most politicians, Zardari has also had a tumultuous relationship with the establishment. At times, he has cautioned the establishment from “stepping out of its domain”. At other times, he has distanced his party, claiming “We are neither with nor against the establishment.” In December last year, he said, “We have to work with the establishment and the stakeholders with love.”

• The former president supported the establishment of military courts, saying it has saved future generations.

• He has called on political parties to agree to a “Charter of Economy” stressing collective efforts to improve the economy.

• He has held rallies in Balochistan in connection with the upcoming polls, calling the province the ‘heart of Pakistan’ and making big promises for its uplift.

Header artwork by Abdul Sattar Abbasi