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HomeInternationalArtful dodger' Asif Ali Zardari becomes Pakistan president for the second time

Artful dodger’ Asif Ali Zardari becomes Pakistan president for the second time

In 2013, Zardari became the first Pakistani president to complete his full five-year term

ISLAMABAD: Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Pakistan’s slain first female premier Benazir Bhutto who has had a life storied equally by tragedy and farce, is set to become president for a second time on Saturday. Initially a background character as Bhutto’s consort, Zardari was stained by a bevvy of corruption and other allegations, including absurd kidnapping plots and taking kickbacks lavished on hoards of jewellery.

Despite a reputation as “Mr Ten Percent” the alleged cut he took for rubber-stamping contracts — a sympathy vote propelled him to office when his wife was assassinated in a 2007 bomb and gun attack. Between 2008 and 2013, he ushered in constitutional reforms rolling back presidential powers, and the 68-year-old’s second term will see him steer a largely ceremonial office.

He has spent more than 11 years in jail, a long time even by the standards of Pakistani politicians, with a wheeler-dealer’s talent for bouncing back after scandals. In 2009, the New York Times said he had a knack for “artful dodging” — “manoeuvring himself out of the tight spots he gets himself into”. Newly sworn-in lawmakers were set to vote him in under the terms of a coalition deal brokered after February 8 elections marred by rigging claims.

Under that deal, Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) will take the presidency, while its historic rivals the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party secured the prime minister’s position for Shehbaz Sharif, who was officially sworn in on Monday.

Polo playboy

Zardari was born in 1955 into a land-owning family from the southern province of Sindh. “As a child, I was spoilt by my parents as an only son,” he said in a 2000 interview with the Guardian newspaper. “They indulged my every whim.” He expressed only limited political ambitions as a young man — losing a 1983 local government election. It was his 1987 arranged marriage with PPP leader Benazir Bhutto that earned him a spot in the political limelight. Their union — brokered by Bhutto’s mother — was considered an unlikely pairing for a leader-in-waiting from one of Pakistan’s major political dynasties.

Bhutto was an Oxford and Harvard graduate driven by the desire to oust then-president Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, who forced her father from the prime minister’s office and had him executed. Zardari was a university dropout with a reputation for brawling, partying and romancing women at a private disco in his family home.

On the eve of their wedding, Bhutto’s team issued a formal statement denying he was “a playboy who plays polo by day and frequents discos at night”. Their nuptial celebrations were dubbed the “people’s wedding” — doubling as a political rally in the megacity of Karachi, where a crowd of 100,000 fervently chanted PPP slogans. Initially, Zardari pledged to keep out of politics.

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