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'The Rumors about Zardari are Absurd': An Interview with PPP Official Matloob Warraich

Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008

In the last 12 months, events in Pakistan have developed at a frenetic pace. In October 2007, Benazir Bhutto returned to her homeland following years of exile and was greeted as a savior by millions of followers. Just two months later, in December, she was assassinated in an attack whose authors have still not been identified. Shortly after that, the political decline and fall of her rival Pervez Musharraf began. First the general lost the parliamentary elections, then his post as head of the army, and finally the presidency itself. Earlier this month, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, was sworn in as Pakistan's new president. Zardari is one of the most controversial figures in Pakistan. His name has been connected to charges of corruption, murder, and nepotism.

Matloob Warraich was for many years an adviser to Benazir Bhutto and is part of Zardari's inner circle. He spoke with the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche about Pakistan's new strongman and the accusations against him.

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One year ago, no one would have bet that Asif Ali Zardari would ever become the President of Pakistan. How did this man -- who is known as "Mr. 10 Percent" among the Pakistani people because of his history of corruption -- manage to reach the summit of political power?

Firstly, I'd like to point out that the description "Mr. 10 percent" was the product of a campaign of defamation. The campaign was orchestrated by Nawaz Sharif, who took over power from Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1997 and wanted to damage his rivals. Pakistan's most influential newspaper, Nawa-I-Waqt, had ties to Sharif and it was Naw-I-Waqt that originally disseminated the rumors about "Mr. 10 Percent." In 2005, the editor-in-chief of the paper apologized and defended Zardari against the charges. He described Zardari as a "clean racehorse."

It is well known that Benazir Bhutto failed as prime minister, among other reasons, because her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, generously filled his own pockets as a member of the government.

Corruption is widespread in Pakistan. Hardly anyone among the upper echelons of the government or the courts or the army has "clean hands." Members of the elite typically do not discuss the topic. If, however, someone from the lower social strata manages to join the establishment, he is subject to particular scrutiny. When Zardari married a young Benazir Bhutto and thus gained entry to one of the most important clans in Pakistan, his enemies and begrudgers were legion. His actions were held to a different standard.

Zardari does not only have the reputation of being corrupt. He has been accused of money-laundering and his name has been mentioned in connection with the murder of Benazir Bhutto's brother Murtaza.

The political enemies of Zardari have employed all available legal means in order to damage him and his family. The best lawyers have been sent into battle against him, but they could never prove anything. Seventeen indictments ended in nothing. Today, there is not a single charge that is still pending. Zardari can take office with a clear conscience.

The Pakistani people apparently see things differently. The doubts about Zardari are deep-rooted. In a free election, he would never have been elected.

The parliament elected Zardari earlier this month with an overwhelming majority. The parliament was itself elected in February. The Pakistani people have clearly expressed their confidence in the Pakistan People's Party led by Zardari.

If Zardari is so sure about his legitimacy, why does he refuse to restore Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, to office?

Firstly, one has to note that Chaudhry was driven from office by Musharraf. This was a calculated political move. Musharraf feared that Chaudhry could annul his election as president. In fall 2007, in a desperate attempt to hold on to power, Musharraf had had himself elected by the old parliament that was still loyal to him.

Why does Zardari refuse to repeal the illegal dismissal of Chaudhry?

Chaudhry himself is not the Mr. Clean that he gives the appearance of being. He twice took his oath of office under a dictator. Moreover, he is also corrupt. All of Pakistan knows that he helped his son to get a good position in the police department through connections.

Chief Justice Chaudhry is very popular in Pakistan. He could become dangerous for Zardari. He could reopen old cases against Zardari.

Zardari is not opposed in principle to Chaudhry's taking office again. But if he wants to return, this has to be legitimately decided by way of the democratic system. If the parliament is prepared to accept him as chief justice again, then there is no obstacle to his returning.

The return of Benazir Bhutto and her husband to Pakistan first became possible by way of a pact with Musharraf. You were there when the deal was negotiated. How did it come about?

The negotiations had begun several years ago. It was only when Musharraf's popularity sank dramatically that he began to budge. The decisive meeting took place in July 2007, when Musharraf finally declared his willingness to let Benazir Bhutto return from exile. The accord comprised the following points: Bhutto would support Musharraf as president and in exchange Musharraf would permit her to run for prime minister for a third time.

In addition, Musharraf agreed to drop all charges and legal proceedings against Bhutto and her husband. Critics described the deal as a "pact with the devil."

We were conscious of the fact that the Musharraf era was coming to an end. It was the long-awaited opportunity to bring Pakistan back to democracy. And this is what happened. First, Musharraf called elections, then he turned in his uniform and resigned as head of the army. Finally, he was forced to resign the presidency and he disappeared from the political stage.

Did you have guarantees from the United States and from Great Britain that they would support the deal and the return of Bhutto?

Yes. London and Washington had long known about the discussions and they favored the accord. We needed the support of the two great powers, since a military dictator is not to be trusted.

In an interview that he gave to Die Weltwoche in February, Zardari denied rumors that he was aiming at higher office. He wanted to look after the party, he said, as was laid out in his wife's testament. When did he decide to step out from behind the curtain?

Politics -- especially in a country in crisis like Pakistan -- does not allow for long-term planning. One has to reevaluate the situation day by day. No one, moreover, puts all their cards on the table right away.

So he was harboring such ambitions for a long time?

Maybe it became increasingly clear to him that his party needed him and that he had to assume the office of president.

Over the last several months, Zardari has neutralized numerous close associates of Benazir Bhutto and potential rivals in the party and replaced them with persons who are bound to him. This could lead one to think that he had carefully prepared his seizure of power.

When Bhutto first came to power in 1988, she parted ways with 95 percent of the old guard of her father Zulfikar Bhutto [who was prime minister from 1973 to 1977]. Zardari is entirely within his rights to assemble his team as he sees fit.

Some of the discarded Bhutto associates have been very critical about Zardari's abilities and character. They doubt that he is the right person to unite and to lead the country.

Nobody has the support of 100 percent of the party members.

To this day, it has not been established who was responsible for the murder of Benazir Bhutto. Sometimes Pakistani Taliban are suspected of having been behind the crime, sometimes the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, and sometimes al-Qaida. There have been rumors circulating for a while now that Zardari himself was involved in the plot.

I have also heard such rumors. But people say a lot of things. What benefit could he have hoped to draw from such a shameless plot?

If Bhutto was still alive, Zardari could never have reached the heights of power.

If Bhutto was still alive, he would definitely have received an important post.

But not the presidency, not the highest office in the land.

It is absurd to kill one's own wife just to gain power. "First Husband" is also an honorable position. There are others who really could have counted on profiting from Bhutto's murder. We do not only have friends among our neighbors. There are forces that are not interested in a stable Pakistan.

You mean India?

Hopefully we will soon know for sure. Right after his election, Zardari repeated his request for the United Nations to undertake a comprehensive investigation of the murder.

The actual "successor to the throne" of Benazir Bhutto is her 19-year-old son Bilawal. When will he assume a more important role?

As soon as he has finished his studies in England, he will return to Pakistan and take on responsibilities. Until then, his father will run the party.

You have known Zardari for almost 20 years now. You even shared a prison cell with him. How did that come to pass?

That was in 1999. I was indicted because I opposed the criminal investigation against Bhutto and Zardari in Geneva. [Editor's note: Zardari and Benazir Bhutto were charged with money laundering in Geneva. In August, the Swiss public prosecutor's office dismissed the charges and unblocked the equivalent of $64 million in Swiss bank accounts.] After three months, I was released on bail and traveled to Iran. There the Swiss embassy helped me to return to Switzerland, where I have had a home for over 20 years.

In contrast to his deceased wife, Zardari is not considered to be an intellectual. In terms of education, eloquence, and charisma she was far his superior. How would you describe Zardari's abilities?

When I was in prison, I learned a lot from him: For instance, how to deal with problems and difficult situations. During his incarceration, he displayed unbelievable resiliency. He was always confident that things would turn in his favor. Prison made him a more mature person. It is true that he does not read as much as his deceased wife. But one does not necessarily have to be a bookworm to be president.

Matloob Warraich is a member of the Federal Council of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). He was for many years an adviser to Benazir Bhutto and is the representative of the PPP for Europe. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan and Olten, Switzerland. Urs Gehriger writes for the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. The above interview first appeared in German here on the Web site of Die Weltwoche. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.

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