140318 2/7/2008 7:52 08ISLAMABAD549 Embassy Islamabad CONFIDENTIAL 08ISLAMABAD405|08ISLAMABAD505 "VZCZCXRO1450
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RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY" "C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 ISLAMABAD 000549
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/31/2018
TAGS: PREL, PGOV, PHUM, PK
SUBJECT: PM ASIF ZARDARI?
REF: ISLAMABAD 505 ISLAMABAD 405
Classified By: Anne W. Patterson, for reasons 1.4 (b)(d)
1. (C) Summary. Pakistan People's Party (PPP) Co-Chairman Asif Zardari released his late wife Benazir Bhutto's will to the press to prove she had chosen him to run the party. This sparked a firestorm of speculation about his desire to be the PPP's candidate for Prime Minister. NSA Aziz told Ambassador February 4 that President Musharraf had rebuffed Zardari's overtures on this initiative. Zardari's supporters are now backtracking, insisting that Amin Faheem will be the PPP's eventual choice as PM. If Zardari does agree to maintain a behind-the-scenes role, there are several contenders to be a PPP Prime Minster, but none is the strong leader Pakistan needs. End summary.
2. (SBU) On February 5, the PPP released to the press a copy of Benazir Bhutto's handwritten will, in which she specifically hands her husband Asif Zardari control of the party (Ref B). The release was timed to coincide with the ""chelum"" marking the end of 40 days of mourning for Benazir. Local press picked up a Newsweek article in which Zardari declined to rule out an attempt to become Prime Minister. He is quoted as saying that he has more name/face recognition than anyone else in the party. The story has provoked a firestorm of questions and criticism within the PPP and in the press. Local editorials January 7 were primarily derisive, reminding readers that Zardari has a ""hangover of controversy"" from the past and reluctantly acknowledging the feudal and non-democratic nature of party structures in Pakistan.
3. (C) At a meeting February 6, NSA Tariq Aziz told Ambassador it is a ""given"" that the PPP will form the next government. He said that PPP interlocutor Rehman Malik reached out to him in Dubai to explore the possibility of Zardari becoming Prime Minister. Aziz noted that the constitution did not allow someone to become Prime Minister without first being a Member of the National Assembly. He thought Zardari's plan would be to put someone else in the Prime Minister's office temporarily until Zardari could win a by-election.
4. (C) Musharraf responded with a firm rejection of this idea. Aziz said it would reflect badly on Musharraf to have cut a deal to bring Benazir Bhutto back and then end up with Zardari as Prime Minister. They could support Zardari as being the behind-the-scenes party leader; in fact, Aziz said they preferred this scenario as it was easier to cut dealswith Zardari than it would have been with Benazir. Aziz called this the ""Sonia Ghandi model."" Aziz was non-committal on the status of the National Reconciliation Order, which reportedly expired this week. (Note: the Supreme Court February 6 postponed until after the election consideration of a legal challenge to the NRO.)
5. (C) Aziz confirmed rumors that serious divisions are developing within the PPP. He reported that Zardari had summed Amin Faheem back from Islamabad after learning he had met with us (Ref A). Zardari told Aziz that Faheem was his candidate for Prime Minister. However, Aziz also commented that Zardari has been giving mixed signals to the other PPP contenders (Vice Chairman Yousaf Gillani, PPP Punjab President Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and former Defense Minister Aftab Shahban Mirani) and keeping his own options open. Aziz said that ISI Director Nadeem Taj would meet soon with Zardari to try to dissuade him from pursuing the position of Prime Minister.
6. (C) Zardari's supporters have been quick to call us to insist the Newsweek story inaccurately portrayed the situation. PPP international press coordinator Farah Ispahani told Polcouns February 6 that Zardari will support Faheem as Prime Minister, but not until after the election. Separately, Qureshi has been promoting himself as the best candidate, and CG Lahore reports (Septel) that infighting between Qureshi and Gillani in the southern Punjab has weakened the party's prospects there. All of post's PPP contacts are lining up behind various contenders and seeking our support for their choices.
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7. (C) If Zardari were to pursue becoming Prime Minister, he has some hurdles to overcome. According to Pakistan's constitution, you must be a sitting Member of the National Assembly (MNA) to be named Prime Minister. Qualifications for MNA include being at least 25 years of age, being ""sagacious, righteous, non-profligate and honest,"" and not having been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude. A controversial requirement that MNAs also have a university degree was added after Zardari served as a Senator. According to Zardari's bio, he does not have this degree. His prior convictions were overturned on appeal, but there appear to be charges pending (which the NRO would excise if it remains in force); the definition of moral turpitude in Pakistan remains cloudy.
8. (C) Zardari advised us (Ref B) that he was planning to ask his sister to resign from her Nawabshah National Assembly seat so that he could run in a by-election. This election could not occur until 60 days after the February 18 election, and then only after a compliant Election Commission declared him eligible as a candidate. Presumably, Zardari would need his own caretaker to become Prime Ministers until he was elected as an MNA.
9. (C) Comment: If he refuses to extend the NRO, Musharraf has leverage which could dissuade Zardari from seeking the job as Prime Minister. If Zardari agrees to remain behind the scenes, the question then is who becomes his front man. According to the latest polls, Amin Faheem is head and shoulders above all other PM candidates in terms of popularity and has a separate power base within the PPP. Although a weak personality, Faheem could challenge Zardari's credibility within the party. Gillani has a history of corruption charges and is a Punjabi in a Sindh-based party; Qureshi we believe will be too independent for Zardari's taste; Mirani at age 70 is a Sindhi perceived as being clean, close to Zardari, and pliant.
10. (C) Frankly, none of these PM contenders strike us as being the strong leader that Pakistan needs. If PPP is in fact is tapped by Musharraf to form the next government, any of these contenders will require support in the shape of strong cabinet members from his coalition partner. Which parties will form that coalition remains to be seen.