By Laura King, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post
Islamabad: A year ago, Asif Ali Zardari was a political footnote. He was best known as the corruption-tainted, polo-loving husband of Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic former Pakistani prime minister who appeared poised to make a dramatic return to power.
Now Zardari, who took over leadership of Bhutto's party after she was assassinated in December 27 and became president three months ago, finds himself head of state at a time of extraordinary turmoil, even by Pakistani standards.
Stung by Indian accusations that Pakistani militants played a leading role in last month's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, the country has responded with an outpouring of nationalistic sentiment.
For the moment, that sense of affront and grievance is uniting Pakistanis of all political persuasions, but many analysts believe it could eventually backfire on Zardari.
A tough stance
To please a domestic audience, the 53-year-old president has taken a tough stance toward India, refusing to hand over suspects sought by New Delhi and expressing scepticism that the attacks emanated from Pakistani soil, despite mounting evidence from Indian investigators and Western intelligence.
But at the same time, Zardari is under intense pressure from the United States, his main patron, to crack down on militant figures suspected of being behind the attacks, although that could provoke a violent backlash from insurgents and their supporters.
Pakistani cities and towns have already suffered a concerted campaign of suicide bombings at militants' hands.
Zardari was overwhelmingly elected president by Pakistani lawmakers in September, after leading his wife's political party to victory in parliamentary elections six weeks after her death.
The assassination brought a wave of sympathy for Zardari, who had long been derided as "Mr 10 percent" for kickbacks he allegedly demanded on government contracts when his wife was prime minister in the 1990s. But many Pakistanis, particularly among the country's educated elite, fear Zardari is simply not up to the task of governance.
"Naive is the word I would use," said Zafarullah Khan, director of the Centre for Civic Education in Islamabad. "He really became president only by accident."
Since the Mumbai crisis erupted, Zardari and his lieutenants have made a series of embarrassing missteps. During the siege, the Pakistani civilian government promised to send spy chief Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha to help with the investigation - only to be forced to rescind the pledge when the military would have none of it. One of the country's premier newspapers, Dawn, reported that Zardari's aides were also tricked about the identity of a caller they believed to be India's foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee.
When the caller made threats of military action to Zardari, Pakistan's air force spent nearly 24 hours in a state of highest alert before it was ascertained that Mukherjee had not been the person on the line.
Even if the India crisis defuses, Zardari is facing what could become a massive wave of discontent in his country.
When Barack Obama was elected president, Governor Blagojevich of Illinois saw opportunity in the vacancy created in the U.S. Senate. "I've got this thing and it's f------ golden, and uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for f------ nothing," he allegedly said, according to U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago. Fitzgerald has the governor's recorded conversations demanding $500,000 to a million dollars to sell the senate seat.
How ironic! The governor of a major American state that is sending its senator to the White House as president got charged with massive corruption on Dec 9, 2008, the day designated as International Anti-Corruption Day by the United Nations.
This latest corruption scandal in the United States confirms that corruption exists in all parts of the world, including the industrialized world. However, this report also illustrates that, unlike Pakistan and many other less developed countries, there is greater accountability in the West for the people in power.
At the time of the recent India-US nuclear deal approval, members of India's parliament, including convicts released on parole, were offered all kinds of incentives to vote in a certain way. Both the government and the opposition tried desperately to entice them with promises of largess, influence and plum jobs in return for their vote. The BJP opposition, however, could not match the resources of the governing Congress party and the deal was approved.
Not only is there lack of accountability in the developing nations, it seems that politicians such as Pakistan's President Zardari, widely known as Mr. Ten Percent, get rewarded with high offices by the illiterate electorate in spite of corruption, with the assistance of amnesties arranged by the United States. It is what President Bush often describes as "soft bigotry of low expectations" when the West pushes for the pardon of corrupt politicians in countries such as Pakistan, in clear violation of the UN Conventions against Corruption. What is worse, such policies of condoning corruption are pursued in the name of promoting democracy in the third world.
The behavior of condoning corruption in the third world extends to the private sector as well, with American and European companies routinely engaging in bribery in Africa, Middle East and Asia. There are definitely laws on the books in the West such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in the United States. Almost all ethics classes taught in the Western management schools and company training courses cover this topic. However, the question is whether these laws are really enforced and how often are the companies held accountable? Or do they simply rely on the foreign governments to report misbehavior? It would be a fantasy to expect the officials and politicians on the receiving end to report incidents of bribery as they are the main beneficiaries. But I think the German, French, US, British and other governments of developed nations who claim higher moral positions should be cracking down on these reprehensible practices just to enforce their own laws and live up to their own higher standards. While it may be argued and it is like putting the shoe on the wrong foot, I see it as the only hope we have of containing such widespread corruption in developing nations that is robbing their people blind.