September 12, 2008

Cornellians Discuss New Pakistani President

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Last Tuesday, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was sworn in as president of Pakistan, just nine months following his wife’s assassination.
Amidst a growing economic crisis and the rising death toll from the War on Terror, Pakistan’s political unrest seems to be far from over. Zardari’s landslide election has caused a stir in the international arena, but for some, Zardari’s rise to power is a cause for suspicion. According to Wasif Syed grad, who lived in Pakistan, it was the result of a well-planned strategy on Zardari’s part.
“When his wife was assassinated, Zardari became a member of the People’s Party of Pakistan because he basically inherited it from his wife. So he took control and formed a coalition with his rival party, the Muslim League,” Syed said.
According to Syed, this coalition was played up in the eyes of the public. Zardari and Sharif often appeared arm-in-arm, referring to each other as brothers.
“He said that Sharif was his brother, the same guy who put him in prison for a whole plethora of charges,” Syed said. “Then during the general election, the majority of parliamentary seats went to the PPP for sympathy, and second went to the Muslim League.”
After the PPP took the majority of the parliamentary seats, Zardari and Sharif set in motion the legislature necessary to impeach Musharraf and remove him from office.
“Zardari used Sharif to his advantage, and then pushed him out of the picture because he didn’t need him to get elected.”
According to Syed, these acts were not only used to achieve Zardari’s political agenda, but also to seek retribution for being imprisoned.
“He wanted to take revenge; it’s all about vendettas and political agendas. It’s all a game, a charade orchestrated behind the scenes. The front is that democracy has been vindicated,” Syed said.
According to the BBC, Zardari is widely known for his corruption and criminal record, often called “Mr. 10 percent” for his practice of taking 10 percent off the top of his wife’s government deals.
Prof. Emeritus Martin Bernal, government, agreed.
“He is well known for his corruption and associating with the richest groups in Pakistan, which give him financial support and a large number of votes,” Bernal said.
This reputation has led some to wonder why the people of Pakistan would elect someone so infamous for corruption.
“The main question we have to ask is why you have elected an individual who has spent eight to 10 years in prison for corruption,” Syed said. “We have yet to see what he will do in power. You have an individual who really isn’t qualified to be in this post.”
According to Al-Jazeera, one of Zardari’s first moves as president was his vow to work with the United States and Afghanistan in fighting terrorism. In a country where the economic crisis is quickly spiraling out of control, many were surprised that he did not first address policies to repair the damage.
“From a foreign policy standpoint, you have to get the endorsement of the U.S. If you’re not on the U.S. bandwagon, you’ll be affected negatively later in a number of ways,” Syed said. “It is a strategic move, not one out of the goodness of his heart.”
To Bernal, this move by Pakistan is more out of necessity than any other motive.
“ I can’t see how any Pakistani leader could break relations with the U.S. It’s just too powerful at this point,” Bernal said.
According to Al-Jazeera, the U.S. and Afghanistan believe that Al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents are hiding in Pakistan remote northern regions. Recent U.S. attacks on the Afghan border have resulted in several Pakistani civilian casualties, infuriating Pakistani citizens who are already suffering from poverty induced by the economic downturn.
“Inflation is through the roof, the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, and the average person isn’t making ends meet,” Syed said.
Many have questioned how Pakistan’s military will react to having a civilian in the office of President. Syed believes that the military will not allow Zardari to be in power for very long.
“I had the opportunity to speak with Musharraf’s chief of staff before his resignation. In my opinion, I believe that within the next two to four years, there will be a military coup in Pakistan,” Syed said.
His reasoning was based on both the economic and political instability that he believes Zardari will not be capable of overcoming.
“If the economic instability prevails, at some point the military will have no choice but to intervene,” Syed said. “Economic instability combined with the government’s incapability to instill a sense of confidence in the people will force the military to intervene and say ‘enough is enough.”
Bernal agreed that such a coup is likely, and could prove disastrous for the U.S., particularly in regards to the War on Terror.
“I think the military will allow this corrupt civilian rule to go on for two or three years, and then step in,” Bernal said. “The military is fundamentalist and religious. They created the Taliban. When they get fed up with the civilian rule, it won’t help the U.S. very much.”
On the question of Musharraf’s resignation, many wonder if the U.S. will be able to relate as easily to Zardari.
“Musharraf was the best the U.S. could hope for, but they couldn’t hold onto him because he was so unpopular,” Bernal said.
If neither Musharraf nor Zardari are right for the country, the question is who Pakistan needs to reverse the economic and political decline.
“I’m not sure who the savior of Pakistan could be, and I’m not sure who a better candidate would be. I have very few hopes in [Zardari],” Bernal said. “I didn’t have many hopes in Bhutto, even though she has a very courageous woman, and was very dedicated to the war on terrorism.”
Syed believes that Pakistan will need to look to the West, not only for advice and support, but for educated leaders who can transform the country.
“Pakistan needs fresh new blood with a Western education. We need visionaries in action. These people are all talk and no action,” Syed said. “The U.S. needs to put more pressure on Pakistan at a more intimate level, in the nitty gritty of the government. They need to aid in the massive reformation that needs to take place.”
Whatever future lies ahead for Pakistan, it will likely be an uphill battle against the rapidly rising inflation and lack of faith in the government.
“There is a sense of hopelessness amongst the people. From senators to people on the street, and I’ve talked to both. Most people don’t even vote because they think it’s being rigged. They don’t think that their voice is being heard,” Syed said.