ISLAMABAD, Sept 6: With a big parliamentary vote that can consolidate the fledgling coalition government led by his Pakistan People’s Party, Asif Ali Zardari on Saturday won the presidency which imprisoned him for years, but appeared faced with hard challenges ranging from personal credibility to terrorism and economic troubles afflicting the country.
The PPP co-chairman got a little more than two-thirds majority of a 1,170-member, but 702-vote, electoral college of the two houses of parliament and four provincial assemblies in the election for Pakistan’s president whose expected induction early next week will mark the country’s transition to full civilian democracy after nine years of a military-led regime.
Mr Zardari overcame a storm of criticism at home and abroad over unproven charges of corruption and dishonoured pledges for restoration of the judges sacked by former president Pervez Musharraf to earn the office, one of whose occupants, his own party’s Farooq Leghari, got him arrested while sacking his wife Benazir Bhutto’s second short-lived government in 1996. Gen (retd) Musharraf too let the prisoner to complete about nine years in jail while being tried for never-proven corruption charges before allowing him out on bail in 2005.
Mr Zardari, who took over as party leader after the Dec 27 assassination of Ms Bhutto, earned the easy victory with 481 votes, compared with 153 of Pakistan Muslim League-N candidate and former Supreme Court chief justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui and 44 of Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q of Musharraf loyalists, many of whom broke party discipline to vote for the other two candidates.
Political sources said the presidency, which is now the most powerful political office in the country, would hardly be a comfortable crown for Mr Zardari whose credibility plummeted in recent months after he failed to honour three deadlines he agreed with PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif for restoration of the judges.
He will have to rectify this situation, for which he now has the needed presidential powers and the parliamentary majority for any constitutional amendment to which the PML-N too will an eager party.
Then there will be the question of the PPP-PML-N commitment to a Charter of Democracy that both Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif had signed in London in 2006 whose implementation will mean clipping the presidency of its controversial powers such as to dissolve the National Assembly, sack a prime minister and appoint armed forces’ chiefs and the chief election commissioner and to give them back to the prime minister as originally envisioned by the 1973 Constitution.
Many political observers doubt Mr Zardari will like to part with all of these powers, which were first introduced by decree by longest serving military ruler General Mohammad Ziaul Haq (1977-88), but were given back to the prime minister through a constitutional amendment under Mr Sharif’s second government, and assumed again by former president Musharraf.
Until the presidency retains its present ascendancy over parliament, it will be Mr Zardari, rather than his hand-picked Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who will play the main role in directing Pakistan’s role in the fight against terrorism on its own or as an ally of the United States and in formulating government policies to tackle the acute hardships caused by the prevailing inflation and food and power shortages and other pressing economic problems.Mr Zardari said in a post-election press statement that he would give ‘high priority’ to support the government and parliament to amend the Constitution and ‘correct the imbalance of powers’ between the presidency and parliament to fulfil Ms Bhutto’s ‘dreams’. But he did not elaborate how far he could go.
Chants of “Jeay (long live) Bhutto” and “Zinda hai Bibi zinda hai” (Bibi is alive) to remember the executed PPP founder and former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Ms Bhutto repeatedly rang through the National Assembly chamber during the last stages of the vote-count and after Chief Election Commissioner Qazi Mohammad Farooq announced the result of the voting by members of the 342-seat lower house and 100-seat Senate.
Members of the four provincial assemblies voted at the chambers of their respective legislatures in Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta.
The two houses of parliament gave Mr Zardari 281, or only 11 less than two-thirds of 436 polled votes, of which 11 were declared invalid, showing the PPP and its allies could run the government comfortably even after last month’s withdrawal by the PMM-N from the coalition because of differences over restoration of judges and Mr Zardari’s candidature.
Despite their varying strengths, the electoral votes of the provincial assemblies will be calculated as equivalent to the lowest number of 65 in the Balochistan assembly.
The majority vote for the PML-N candidate in the Punjab assembly -- 201 actual and 35 electoral -- must also put to rest speculations about the fate of the PML-N-led provincial coalition government there if the PPP withdraws from it.
Mr Zardari was a loser to the PML-N candidate in the Punjab assembly where he got 123 actual and 22 electoral votes, while Mr Mushahid polled 36 actual and only six electoral votes.
However, in the Sindh assembly, Mr Zardari secured all the polled 162 actual and 63 electoral votes. In the NWFP assembly, he got the actual 107 and electoral 56 votes, compared to 10 actual and five electoral votes of Mr Siddiqui and three actual and two electoral of Mr Mushahid.
In the Balochistan assembly, Mr Zardari polled 59 with his two rivals getting only two votes each.
PPP sources said the vote outcome was more than the expectations of the party which was sure of a victory even with the strength of itself and its declared allies but had set a target of 450 after several PML-Q members assured their support.
Four MNAs and one senator of Pir Pagara’s PML-F, which had previously declared to remain neutral in the contest, arrived a few minutes before the close of the polling amid cheers from PPP benches, indicating the Sindh-based party had agreed to back Mr Zardari.