Illustration by Radia Durrani


Having spent over a decade in prison and consistently mired in controversy, how has the PPP leader gone from being a pariah in Pakistani politics to becoming its undisputed kingmaker?
Published March 10, 2024

Asif Ali Zardari epitomises the perpetual ironies of Pakistani politics. For the past three decades, he has alternated between prison and power.

Arguably the most maligned politician in Pakistan, he managed to reach the highest pedestal of power. Past master in wheeling and dealing, he has made history by becoming the only Pakistani politician to be elected president for a second time.

An accidental leader as a result of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, not only did Zardari become the first democratically elected president in the country to have completed his full term, he also left office with a guard of honour.

In addition, he had the distinction of presiding over an unprecedented transition between elected governments — a remarkable accomplishment indeed for one often described as an aberration.

Revered by his supporters as politically farsighted and reviled by his critics for his alleged lack of ethics, he presents an enigma in Pakistan politics. Simultaneously a figure of hate and grudging respect for his tenaciousness, even critical observers accept that no one does power politics better than Asif Ali Zardari. How has he gone from being a pariah in politics to becoming its undisputed kingmaker?

As he prepares for an unprecedented second stint in the country’s top constitutional post, Eos takes a look back at President Asif Ali Zardari’s mercurial political journey. Having spent over a decade in prison and consistently mired in controversy, how has he gone from being a pariah in Pakistani politics to becoming its undisputed kingmaker?


Zardari has proved to be a shrewd and crafty politician. Since taking on the mantle of leadership in December 2007, he led the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to victory in the 2008 parliamentary elections and worked with former political foes to force military leader Gen Pervez Musharraf to step down.

But Zardari’s journey from being the husband of Benazir Bhutto to becoming a politician in his own right has been full of irony.

During Benazir’s first tenure, Zardari was widely accused of misusing his wife’s position to acquire wealth. The opposition alleged that Zardari charged a commission on every government project and labelled him “Mr Ten Percent.”

He was also blamed for the downfall of his wife’s first government and, not surprisingly, he was one of the first persons to be arrested by the caretaker government in 1990.

Interestingly, Zardari chose to plunge into the political arena at the juncture when everything seemed to be going against him. He decided to contest elections for a National Assembly seat from his home town, Nawabshah, in 1990.

“At least people will not call me the unelected spouse of the prime minister, interfering in the affairs of the government,” he told me while on the campaign trail then. “If I am elected, I will be able to defend myself from the floor of the house.”

Weeks later, he was arrested on a litany of charges. He lost that election, but was elected to the National Assembly in 1993.

Many believed that Zardari’s decision to get into parliament had been motivated purely by political ambition. In the preceding 20 months that his wife was prime minister, Zardari was widely believed to have been running the show from behind the scenes and had decided to take centre stage himself.

He served two and a half years in prison and faced trial in special courts on over 200 charges, ranging from kidnapping for ransom to defrauding banks to conspiring to kill political opponents. But none of the charges were substantiated during his long trial. Zardari’s star rose again after his release on bail in 1992.

It was an unforgettable moment in Pakistan’s political history when Zardari was released from prison and sworn in as a federal minister, in the interim government formed after the ouster of Nawaz Sharif’s first federal government in 1993. Ironically, the oath was administered by Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the former president who had been responsible for sending him to jail.

Following the PPP’s victory in the 1993 elections, Zardari was back in the saddle — with all the controversies that had marked the first Benazir Bhutto government. Now a federal minister, Zardari was once again being accused of corruption and political manipulation. He was believed to be running the show and many referred to him as the de facto prime minister.

Zardari was arrested again after the ouster of Benazir Bhutto’s second government in November 1996. Once again, he faced a slew of criminal charges, ranging from corruption to misuse of political office and murder.

He was convicted for receiving kickbacks from the state-run Pakistan Steel Mills during Bhutto’s tenure and was sentenced for seven years in 2002. But the conviction was later overturned by the courts.

Zardari has proved to be a shrewd and crafty politician. Since taking on the mantle of leadership in December 2007, he led the PPP to victory in the 2008 parliamentary elections and worked with former political foes to force military leader Gen Musharraf to step down.


The Musharraf government, however, hung on to Zardari as a pawn or a likely bargaining chip, in the belief that, at some point in the future, his release could be traded for some advantage to the government.

And that is precisely what happened.

The military establishment started negotiations with the PPP immediately after the October 2002 parliamentary elections, as the official Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) and its allies failed to get a clear majority.

The military was even prepared to accept PPP stalwart Amin Fahim as prime minister, but the talks failed after the government’s refusal to withdraw the cases against Benazir Bhutto and allow her to return to the country.

Interestingly, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was negotiating with Zardari throughout this period. The establishment offered to make one of the PPP leaders deputy prime minister if Benazir agreed to stay away.

With no hope of their offer being accepted, the establishment engineered a split in the party. Several members of the National Assembly (MNAs) of the PPP, involved in corruption cases, found it convenient to join the pro-Musharrraf forces. The renegades, who called themselves the PPP-Patriots, were the key pillar of a fragile coalition.

Asif Zardari with Benazir Bhutto and their three children: during Benazir’s first tenure, Zardari was widely accused of misusing his wife’s position to acquire wealth | White Star
Asif Zardari with Benazir Bhutto and their three children: during Benazir’s first tenure, Zardari was widely accused of misusing his wife’s position to acquire wealth | White Star


The release in 2004 of Zardari, the country’s most high profile prisoner, could hardly be described as a triumph of justice. It was purely the politics of expediency that brought freedom to the husband of Benazir Bhutto after eight years of incarceration and no convictions. Floundering in troubled waters, President Musharraf sought reconciliation with the same liberal secular parties he had unsuccessfully tried to wipe out.

Zardari’s release was part of the military government’s attempt to woo the PPP, which was one of the strongest political forces in the country despite persecution by the military establishment.

It assumed greater significance at a time when the combined opposition parties had threatened to launch a nationwide protest against President Musharraf’s decision to retain the post of army chief, reneging on his promise to become a civilian head at the end of the year.

After spending eight years in jail, Zardari had emerged as a political leader in his own right. By then, he had spent a total of almost 11 years in prison — longer than any other mainstream Pakistani politician. Even those PPP leaders who earlier considered him a liability, blaming him for the fall of the last Bhutto government, now recognised him as an asset to the party.

The cases against him were withdrawn under the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), as a result of a deal between the PPP and Gen Musharraf. Zardari lived in New York and Dubai for several years after he was released and returned to the country after the assassination of Ms Bhutto.

His political stakes rose higher after he raised the slogan “Pakistan Khappay” [We Want Pakistan], which helped defuse the public rage over Ms Bhutto’s death. Zardari then took over the charge of the PPP and led the party to victory in the 2008 elections. That also helped him reach the pinnacle of political power.


The national assembly hall reverberated with slogans of ‘Jiye Bhutto’ [Long Live Bhutto] when Zardari was declared Pakistan’s newly elected president, completing the process of the return to civilian rule, which had started after the landmark February 18, 2008 elections. It was a convincing victory, with more than 70 percent of the electoral college members voting in Zardari’s favour.

The presidential election marked the completion of a political resurrection for the man who had been thrust on to the centre stage of Pakistani politics only a few months after the assassination of his charismatic wife.

It was also an amazing reversal of fortune for the then 53-year-old controversial widower, who had spent more than a decade in prison on murder, corruption and other criminal charges.

The best feature of this ascent to power was that it was democratic. Even though beset by a lingering reputation of corruption, Zardari had reached the pinnacle of power because he and his party had been elected by the people. His support came from across the country, particularly from the three smaller provinces, where his majority was overwhelming.

His election indicated a shifting of power from the Punjab to the federating units. The development helped strengthen the federation, which had weakened because of nine years of military rule.

“My election presents a historic opportunity for all political forces to change the future direction of the country,” Zardari declared after his triumph. “We must rise above party lines to shut the doors on non-democratic forces, once and for all.”

With his party in power in the centre and three provinces, Zardari had emerged as the country’s most powerful leader after his illustrious father-in-law, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As president, Zardari assumed much of the same grip on power that Musharraf had enjoyed at the height of his military-backed presidency. He garnered respect for giving up many of the powers of the presidency through constitutional amendments the PPP pushed through.

Zardari, however, found it extremely difficult to change his negative image. He found himself embroiled in a fresh scandal just before his election, when Swiss authorities dropped a money laundering case against him at the request of the Pakistan government, leading to the release of $60 million to him.

The move raised renewed questions as to how he had acquired such wealth. Certainly not a great beginning for the new president. His election as president provided him immunity from any legal proceedings.

Zardari had held no official position until his election as the country’s president, but he had been virtually running the government since the February 18, 2008 elections. While the prime minister remained a figurehead, Zardari micromanaged everything.

Zardari’s initial success in consolidating his grip on the party and his victory against Musharraf gave him a huge sense of confidence. He was also rightly credited for strengthening the democratic process and making changes in the Constitution by granting greater autonomy to the provinces. But these may not be the reasons alone for which Zardari will be long remembered.

This file photo from November 2022 shows Asif Zardari meeting PML-Q leader Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain: the PPP co-chairman has been able to make friends of former foes | White Star
This file photo from November 2022 shows Asif Zardari meeting PML-Q leader Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain: the PPP co-chairman has been able to make friends of former foes | White Star


Though he allowed his constitutional powers to be clipped under the 18th Amendment, Zardari remained the most powerful political leader in the country. Drawing his power from being the chairman of the ruling party, he virtually ran the government from the confines of the President House, where he was mostly surrounded by his former jail and school mates.

But it had not been smooth sailing for Zardari as president. Several times in the five years of his term, he had to pull himself back from the brink. Being Zardari has its own perils. Despite rising to the zenith of power, he could never get away from his past reputation and old corruption cases continued to haunt him.

His stand-off with the Supreme Court, on the issue of the reopening of the Swiss money-laundering case, claimed the scalp of one prime minister and kept the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. But to give the devil his due, he never seemed to lose his cool and never panicked.

His relations with the military may not have been smooth, but he had learnt to coexist with the generals, sometimes conceding ground or making compromises. His political dexterity and ability to outwit his opponents were not, however, the only reasons for his longevity in power.

He benefitted hugely from the military taking a back seat and the changed domestic political dynamics that had no appetite for any kind of extra-constitutional intervention. Zardari’s non-confrontationist ways also suited the generals.


There was, however, one occasion in early 2012, when his government openly clashed with the generals, raising fears that the president might be forced to step down.

The confrontation was precipitated when Zardari tried to protect Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s then ambassador to Washington. Haqqani was accused of conspiring against the military by allegedly writing a secret memo to the US government asking for its support to the civilian government. Zardari sacked him, but would not agree to his trial on sedition charges.

As the tension mounted over what’s described as “Memogate”, Zardari was flown to Dubai for ‘urgent medical treatment.’

It was perhaps at that time that the president was at his most vulnerable. A report in Foreign Policy quoted US State Department officials on a telephonic conversation with President Obama, in which Zardari appeared completely incoherent. It further fuelled conjecture about his health and political future. But weeks later, he was back to the presidency, defying all speculation.


During his tenure, Zardari seldom ventured out of the presidency or the high-walled Bilawal House in Karachi, ostensibly because of security concerns. That insulated him from the reality outside.

He has never been a popular mass politician, but his government’s appalling performance and charges of rampant corruption, involving key members of his government, further eroded his credibility. He, however, remained delusional about his party’s chances of success at the polls.

With his political wheeling and dealing, he thought the elections were all sewn up in favour of the PPP and its allies. He was extremely confident about winning a second term in office.

That, however, was not to happen. Zardari seemed to have completely underestimated the rising anti-government public sentiment. He did succeed, against all odds, in completing his five-year term. But his party paid a heavy price at the polls for its gross misrule and ineptitude.

Zardari found himself facing the much tougher job of mass politics, which he had very little experience of. He neither has the Bhutto charisma nor the popular appeal that was required to revive the PPP’s political fortunes. It required much more than political wheeling and dealing to revitalise the party.

Once the country’s most powerful political force with nationwide support, the PPP suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2013 elections, with its influence now restricted to rural Sindh and that, too, seemed to be on shaky ground. It was not really a vote for the party on the basis of its provincial government’s performance; it was one driven largely by the Bhutto mystique.

Indeed, the party did have some highly dedicated old guards surviving in its ranks, but they appeared completely out of place in the politics of wheeling and dealing, which is Asif Ali Zardari’s forte.

Under his stewardship, the party lost its traditional connection with the masses which, in the past, had helped the PPP survive some of the worst forms of state repression and bounce back after electoral setbacks.


Soon after he bowed out of the presidency, the noose tightened around Zardari. With the lifting of presidential immunity, Zardari once again found himself entangled in renewed legal battles, inside and outside Pakistan. It was testing times once again for the cunning politician.

The arrest of some of his close friends and business partners was a warning to him that he could be next. Feeling the heat, Zardari left the country in 2014 and stayed in Dubai for almost 18 months. During that period, Zardari took a back seat and allowed his son Bilawal to take charge.

For sure, the party needed a popular face that Zardari was never able to provide to inspire followers. But all the strings were still being pulled from Zardari’s home in Dubai.

Even the Sindh chief minister, Murad Ali Shah, would fly to the UAE frequently to take instructions from the boss. In fact, Dubai had become a safe haven for some members of the Sindh cabinet, who had fled the crackdown.

Since taking charge, Zardari had completely changed the PPP’s culture of mass politics as well as its party structure. Many of the old guard from Punjab left the party, as it lost its electoral space in the country’s biggest province. The central committee seldom met, as the party organisation was effectively run by his sister, Faryal Talpur, and his cronies.

His absence from the country for such a long period of time and his disconnect with the party workers had further eroded the PPP’s popular base, particularly in Punjab, the country’s biggest and most powerful province.


Zardari, perhaps, thought the pressure on him was off when he decided to return. He hoped that he could turn the political tide. But the raid by the Rangers on the office of one of his closest aides, hours before his arrival, dampened his sanguinity. It was not just a coincidence, but a message to the former president.

His decision in 2018 to go back to the National Assembly, along with his son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, showed his resolve to take on the challenge. His presence in parliament had a significant impact. Many described the move as a masterstroke to bring back the PPP to the centre stage of power politics.

However, the return to parliament didn’t help Zardari escape his predicament. The noose had been tightening around him for long and it was just a matter of time before he could be nabbed. He had been there before, but the circumstances of his latest ordeal were markedly different.

The spectacle of an old man walking with support as he appeared before accountability courts was in stark contrast to the bravado he had exhibited during detentions in the past.

For a man who had spent 11 years of his political life in prison, it would not be like what he described as his ‘home’ this time around; both the political landscape and age were against him. It was not that the charges Zardari faced in the past were less serious, but the time and situation appeared less favourable for the crafty politician.

Although Zardari had never been conclusively convicted in the past, it seemed harder for him to come out unscathed from the multiple graft cases against him this time. Perhaps most troubling for him was the fact that it was not only his fate that hung in the balance but some of his family members, including his sisters, were implicated in corruption charges.

His son Bilawal, who was preparing to take over command of the party, was also under investigation.


But the crafty politician still managed to have the last laugh, when his party joined hands with other opposition parties to oust Imran Khan’s government through a Vote of No Confidence in April 2022. Zardari was described as the architect of the move, sensing that the military leadership had stepped back from supporting its protégé.

The PPP also became a key partner in the Pakistan Democratic Movement-led government, extracting maximum political benefit. The cases against him were put in cold storage.

In the recently concluded elections, the PPP has emerged as the third largest bloc in the new National Assembly, making it a key player in the power game. Since its support is critical for the survival of the future political set-up, Zardari has extracted maximum advantage. The PPP has managed to get key constitutional positions, including the post of president, for lending support to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government.

Meanwhile, the party’s decision to keep itself out of the cabinet seems to be a part of Zardari’s strategy to wield power without responsibility. And elected to the country’s top constitutional post for the second time, Zardari — who faced imminent conviction on graft charges a few years ago — will once again enjoy immunity from any legal proceedings till the time he is in office.

Once again, he has proved right the slogan, “Aik Zardari, sab pe bhari” [One Zardari trumps all].

The writer is an author and journalist.
X: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 10th, 2024