ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Bush administration may be relieved, but some Pakistanis fear the worst when Pakistan's parliament meets Saturday for the almost certain election of Asif Ali Zardari as president, succeeding the ousted former military leader Pervez Musharraf.
Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has signaled that he'll align closely with Washington in the war on terrorism, but analysts and politicians said that the controversies that surrounded him at home could lead to further instability in the nuclear-armed country.
On paper, Pakistan's president is a ceremonial head of state, but the post, like the presidential palace Zardari is likely to inherit, has undergone a vast expansion. He'll have his finger on the nuclear button, and will possess the authority to fire and appoint the all-important army chief and to summarily dismiss the government.
Zardari has secured support from ethnic and religious parties across the spectrum, and should handily defeat Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, the candidate put up by his former coalition partner Nawaz Sharif's party, and Mushahid Hussain, a contender from Musharraf's party.
Musharraf, an avowed U.S. ally whom Zardari and Sharif ousted last month, grabbed enormous powers for the presidency. Zardari and his Pakistan People's Party have said that they plan to "re-balance" the powers between the president and the prime minister, the official who's supposed to run the government. Until that happens — if it happens — Zardari, who as party boss appointed the current prime minister, will be the dominant political figure in Pakistan.
"Mr. Zardari is probably not yet ready for the role of nonpolitical head of the federation. He's too partisan. Or perhaps the people are not ready for him," said Shaheen Sehbai, the editor of The News, a Pakistani daily newspaper. "He was considered a negative influence even by his own wife."
When extremists assassinated Bhutto at an election rally last December, Zardari was living in exile in New York with no plans to return. During Bhutto's two terms as prime minister in the late 1980s and 1990s, when her husband earned notoriety as "Mr. 10 Percent" for his alleged corruption, she didn't even allow him to run for Parliament. Zardari spent a total of 11 years in jail on a series of charges, ranging from graft to murder, but nothing was ever proved. He always said that the accusations were politically motivated. As the president, he'll have immunity from criminal charges.
After Bhutto's death, the 53-year-old Zardari demonstrated a red-blooded political acumen. He returned to Pakistan and quickly established an iron grip over Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, winning plaudits for holding it together after the shock of her murder. He led the party to victory in elections in February, though it fell short of a majority. He reached out to forge a coalition government with Sharif, his party's traditional enemy. They were able to eject Musharraf, then fell out bitterly over reinstating activist judges whom Musharraf had fired last year. Sharif insisted that they all be restored, but Zardari didn't agree.
"We're heading for even more troubled times ahead," said Khawaja Asif, a senior member of Sharif's party and a former minister in the coalition government. "If a ruler tries to have a subservient judiciary, it shows ill intentions. What's he afraid of?"
The rivalry with Sharif is where the problems may start. Under Pakistan's federal system, Sharif controls the government of the richest and most powerful province, Punjab, which could easily lead to major clashes. Confrontations between Punjab and Islamabad brought down civilian governments in the 1990s. A conflict already may have begun: This week an arm of the federal government reopened long-dormant corruption cases against Sharif.
Zardari's position that the counterterrorism battle is Pakistan's own struggle is deeply unpopular at home, where it's largely seen as America's war. The U.S., which hopes to bring stability to Afghanistan, must rely on Pakistan to secure its border area, which militants now are using as a haven.
Zardari recently was reported to have had close and unauthorized telephone contacts with Bush administration insider Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to the U.N.
"He (Zardari) is coming with the blessings of the Bush administration," said Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington. "They feel he will provide a political face to the military operations."
In an opinion piece published Thursday in The Washington Post, Zardari wrote: "We stand with the United States, Britain, Spain and others who have been attacked. Fundamentally, however, the war we are fighting is our war. This battle is for Pakistan's soul."
Daniel Markey, a former State Department official who's now at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research center in Washington, said there wasn't enthusiasm in the administration for Zardari but rather a recognition that, with Musharraf and Bhutto gone, he "may be the best of the current lot." He said Washington was looking for someone to bring some stability to Pakistan so that it could tackle its terrorism and economic threats.
"There's an openness here to him because he says the right things, but there are questions whether he, or anyone, can deliver," Markey said.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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