Nation & World

Asif Ali Zardari likely will lose Pakistan’s presidency – and immunity from prosecution

Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, will certainly lose his job in September – and like his predecessor, retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, he’s likely to face criminal charges under the government of newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Zardari has lived with the virtual inevitability of facing charges of corruption since 2009, when Pakistan’s activist Supreme Court struck down a 2007 law issued by Musharraf, who was then Pakistan’s military ruler, that granted Musharraf and the leaders of several political parties immunity from prosecution on outstanding charges against them.

The law, named the National Reconciliation Ordinance, was part of an agreement struck between Musharraf and the late Benazir Bhutto, a former two-time prime minister, to facilitate Pakistan’s return to democracy after eight years of military rule. It was negotiated with the help of the U.S., British and Saudi Arabian governments.

Since ruling the law unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has ignored international treaties granting heads of state immunity from prosecution while in office, and ordered the government to reinstate investigations into corruption charges against Zardari.

The governing coalition, which was led by Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, repeatedly refused to cooperate; last year, the Supreme Court even sacked the then-prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, over his obstinacy.

But the Pakistan Peoples Party did dismally in parliamentary elections earlier this month, and now Zardari is mathematically certain to lose the presidency when his term ends in August. That will mean an end to any argument about immunity from prosecution for charges that date to the 1990s, when Bhutto, Zardari’s wife, was the prime minister.

"The music awaits Zardari," said Aamir Ghauri, a Lahore-based political commentator and television personality.

Pakistan’s president is elected by the combined strength of the country’s 342-member directly elected National Assembly and the 100-seat Senate, a forum at which Pakistan’s four provinces are equally represented.

Zardari would need 222 votes to win a second term as president and retain his immunity from prosecution. His party and its allies still control 62 seats in the Senate, but they lost hugely in parliamentary elections May 11 for the National Assembly, winning just 51 seats. Zardari might be able to count on perhaps another 25 votes from seats reserved for women and religious minorities, but analysts speculate that he’ll have no more than 140 votes when the selection of a president comes, far below the total he’d need to stay in office.

That would leave it up to Sharif to decide Zardari’s fate. The two were once bitter political foes, but they overcame their hatred while exiled during Musharraf’s military rule, and in 2007 they signed an agreement, the charter of democracy, in which they promised to work for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. They also promised not to persecute each other in the event that either party formed a government nor to seek to overthrow the other’s administration.

Sharif made no mention of the cases against Zardari during the election campaign and he hasn’t talked about it since he won. Analysts say he’ll probably seek to distance himself from the charges against Zardari so as not to disrupt efforts to reverse Pakistan’s economic decline and confront the country’s crippling energy and power shortages.

But he’s also not likely to reject court orders to reinstate the charges. Doing so certainly would anger the Supreme Court and would generate political pressure on his government that would just as easily distract from dealing with Pakistan’s many problems.

Zardari spent 11 years in jail because of the charges, and he won appeals against conviction by Pakistani courts. But one case has stuck: an accusation that he and Bhutto were involved in the laundering of $60 million through Swiss banks. A Swiss court convicted them in 2003, but the Pakistani government dropped the case shortly after the Pakistan Peoples Party won the February 2008 general election.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has made it clear that it wants the government to ask the Swiss to reopen the case, though now there’s debate over whether the statute of limitations may have run out. Some say yes, and that the case can’t be reinstated; others say no, because Zardari already has been convicted.

In any case, come September, Zardari no longer will be able to claim immunity from prosecution.

"His political career is dying and will soon be over," political commentator Ghauri said.