Zardari’s Woes: Pakistan’s Dismal Economy, an Angry Army, Corruption Charges, Memogate

Pakistan’s Supreme Court pursues Swiss corruption charges against the president—but that’s not half his worries. Ron Moreau on the forces besetting the government.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani scarcely looked like a man engaged in a struggle to the political death when he arrived at Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday morning, Relaxed and radiating confidence, smiling and waving to onlookers. When he left the court, one hour later, he was still grinning and greeting his supporters—but the fight was by no means over.

As devoutly as the people of Pakistan may have hoped that Gilani’s court appearance would bring a resolution of their country’s deepening political crisis, they were out of luck. Instead, the standoff in the nation’s highest levels of power seems likely to grow even angrier and more crippling in the months to come.

Gilani had been summoned to answer a contempt-of-court charge. Since 2009 the court has repeatedly ordered him to send a letter to Swiss authorities requesting that they reopen a money-laundering case against his political master, President Asif Ali Zardari. But Gilani stood his ground as always in the courtroom on Thursday, arguing that Zardari enjoys sovereign immunity from prosecution of any sort as long as he is president. “It is my firm conviction that he has complete immunity inside and outside the country,” Gilani told the judges. “In the Constitution, there is complete immunity for the president. There is no doubt about that.”

Gilani’s argument is likely to be contested when the judges convene again, on Feb. 1. “On the next date, let’s hear you convince us the issue is of the president’s immunity,” one of the judges told the prime minister. “Let’s grab the bull by the horns.” In fact, however, there seems to be some doubt as to whether the prime minister will be required to appear in person for the hearing. Meanwhile the prime minister’s lawyer, Aitzan Ahsan, hastened to assure the court that his client intends to comply with the order—eventually. “The letter shall be written when Asif Ali Zardari is no longer president,” Ahsan told the judges.

That’s the underlying question: how much longer will Zardari will hang on as president? If Gilani is found to be in contempt of court, the prime minister could theoretically be forced to step down. But the legal proceedings to make that happen would doubtless be lengthy—and even if Gilani eventually goes, Zardari can simply choose a new prime minister who can then do his best to put off writing the dreaded letter to Switzerland.

Not that Zardari is in such good shape politically. His approval rating at best is just above 20 percent. Ordinary Pakistanis are struggling to hold themselves together, buffeted by inflation, energy shortages, and worry. Steel mills, railways, the national airline and other state-run enterprises are in pitiful shape as they drain the country’s already depleted treasury. Corruption and cronyism rage unchecked.

To make matters worse, Zardari still has not lived down his reputation for corruption. Back in the late 1980s, when his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was serving her first term as prime minister, Pakistanis contemptuously nicknamed him “Mr. 10 Percent,” and in 2003 a Swiss court convicted the couple in absentia of skimming and laundering tens of millions of dollars from a Swiss contract. In 2008, after Zardari was elected president in the wake of his wife’s assassination, the Swiss closed the case at his government’s request.

Unfortunately for the president, the Supreme Court is no friend of his. It was only under relentless pressure from street demonstrations in early 2009 that Zardari reinstated the popular Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had been sacked by the country’s military ruler, Pervez Musharraf. Before the year was over, Chaudhry’s court had ordered Gilani’s government to take steps to reopen the Swiss case, along with hundreds of others that had been shelved by a controversial 2007 amnesty decree.

As if Zardari didn’t have enough problems, his generals hate him. “The military sees him as a man with no principles, who is prepared to be pro-American and pro-Indian without any ideology of his own,” says retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. “They consider him to be a parasite. They really look down on him.” The dislike has only worsened as the military’s relations with Washington have deteriorated. “The Army is unhappy with the Americans, and they are taking it out on Zardari,” says opposition parliamentarian and political columnist Ayaz Amir. “It’s the Army, the judiciary, it’s everyone who wants his scalp.”

The corruption allegations aren’t the only threat to Zardari. In the wake of the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound last May, an anonymous memo was delivered to Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The document expressed fear of a possible military coup in Pakistan and requested America’s assistance to prevent it, proposing to put the country’s military chiefs on trial and offering a free hand to U.S. forces for attacks on Pakistani soil. Although Mullen himself dismissed the memo as a hoax, Pakistan’s senior officers are said to believe that Zardari was behind it. Both Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, have gone on record saying they regard it as treasonous. The Supreme Court is investigating, and if the memo can be traced to the president, the military (and many others) hope he’s toast.

At present, though, time appears to be on his side. His term of office (and those of the Parliament his party controls) won’t expire until 2013. His party and its allies are expected to prevail in the upcoming Senate elections this March, and Zardari could even call for early elections this year to ensure his hold on power. Despite the government’s incompetence, his Pakistan People’s Party remains strong and well-organized and the only party with roots in all four provinces.

Zardari’s adversaries are implacable, but even if the forces arrayed against him eventually manage to nail him, what then? Pakistan isn’t likely to be any better off. “If he’s out it will mean more instability,” says MP Amir. “It will just be another mess.”