At long last, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Sunday completed his constitutional five-year term in office, a first for Pakistan. If the US and the world are going to see dividends from advancements in Pakistan’s democratic journey, they should focus less on the fact that Zardari managed to cross the finish line and more on the need for the new government to salvage the “corruption state” that Zardari was front and center in perpetuating.
Much of the reporting on the completion of Zardari’s term has lauded him for voluntarily reducing the powers of the presidency back to where they constitutionally should be, and celebrated his crafty wiles that allowed him to eke out a five-year term despite countless challenges.
In reality, few disagree that Zardari was a disastrous president. Perhaps the least popular leader in the country, his popularity numbers regularly flirted with single digits. He did diminish the power of the presidency, but reluctantly, and only after strong political pressure from opposition parties and the judiciary. Zardari regularly hid behind presidential immunity clauses to fend off corruption and other charges, and sacrificed his party’s democratically-elected prime minister on the altar of his own political preservation. He essentially surrendered control of Pakistan’s foreign and defense policy to the country’s army in exchange for unwritten guarantees of his own political survival, sent a minister who was under investigation for monumental graft in the power sector to the premiership, and allowed both the economy and energy sector to crumble in ruin.
What the new government needs is to claw back the credibility Zardari squandered and implement real governance. The US can help by strongly backing the elected government in its efforts to fend off pressure from the military and other undemocratic forces. Getting the IMF to maintain pressure on the government to see through politically painful but needed reforms will also be essential.
Building a strong democracy in Pakistan will be essential to making the country and the region safer for Pakistani and American interests alike. Undoing, not celebrating, the legacy of Zardari’s tenure is the way forward.