ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Only a year ago, Asif Ali Zardari was best known as the husband of Benazir Bhutto, a highflying businessman with a taste for fine living, polo and, his critics allege, bribes. He was a man who spent 11 years in jail while awaiting trial on unproven corruption charges, the stress of which, according to court papers filed by doctors last year and viewed by a British newspaper, induced bouts of dementia and depression.
Today, Zardari is the leader of this nuclear-armed country, a nation crucial to the security of the United States but one beset by an internal crisis whose outcome could, some say, determine whether Pakistan stands or falls as a modern Muslim state.
Just three weeks into his presidency, Zardari is facing an unprecedented challenge from Islamic extremists, who blew up the Marriott Hotel here in the Pakistani capital in a brazen suicide attack that killed at least 53 people. He is now under enormous pressure to improve security for his people and rescue a flailing economy.
Most delicate of all, he must find a way to cooperate with Washington in its war on Islamic militants without seeming to be bossed around by it or, worse, ignored as U.S. troops based in Afghanistan increasingly make forays against insurgents on Pakistani soil.
Whether Zardari is up to such a difficult task is a question on the minds of many of his compatriots, who wonder whether he has the charisma, clout and capability to rise above party politics and his personal interests for the sake of the nation.
Few Pakistanis can forget that Zardari, 53, is an accidental president, thrust onto center stage after Bhutto, a former prime minister, was assassinated in December by extremists. Zardari took the helm of his wife's Pakistan People's Party, which emerged as the biggest winner at the polls in February, and was elected president by lawmakers this month after the resignation of Pervez Musharraf.
From the beginning, Zardari pledged to unite the country and to bring back the rule of law, including the reseating of a number of judges sacked by Musharraf in an apparent bid to stay in power.
But Zardari has so far failed to deliver fully on those promises, leaving lawmakers divided and hostile at a time when unity is needed more than ever as Pakistan struggles to contain the burgeoning threat of Islamic militancy within its borders.
U.S. looms large
Sending troops in search of extremists, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, soldiers and suspected militants, has proved unpopular with many Pakistanis, who see Zardari as obeying the dictates of the U.S.
Even more infuriating to them are the U.S. military strikes in Pakistan from across the rugged, poorly marked border with Afghanistan, including an alleged incursion Thursday in which Pakistani and American troops briefly exchanged fire.
"This is a moment of national crisis for Pakistan," said Farzana Shaikh, an expert on South Asia at Chatham House, a British think tank. "Mr. Zardari should call on the support of parties across the political spectrum. It's only by being seen to forge a national consensus that Mr. Zardari could then claim that Pakistan is fighting a war that is as much in its own interests as the interests of the United States."
Instead of shoring up support from his opponents, Zardari's refusal to reinstate the nation's popular former chief justice, whom Musharraf fired, has led to a rupture with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N party, the only real rival to the PPP. Sharif pulled his party out of a coalition government over the issue.
"The new government has been far more engaged in political wrangling, in trying to outmaneuver . . . Sharif's party and trying to consolidate its own position rather than attending to the far more pressing problems of militancy and the economy," Shaikh said.
That has hardened perceptions of Zardari as a political schemer and opportunist rather than an inspirational leader dedicated to the greater good.
Many Pakistanis still regard him as a venal wheeler-dealer whose bank accounts suspiciously bloomed during his wife's two terms as premier. His nickname was "Mr. 10%," a reference to his allegedly crooked business practices. He was jailed twice, following each of his wife's terms as prime minister, spending a total of 11 years behind bars on corruption charges. He says the charges, which were never proved, were politically motivated.
Mental illness cited
Corruption charges were lodged against Zardari in several countries, including Britain, where he was able to delay legal proceedings because of diagnoses from two American doctors last year describing him as mentally ill, according to court affidavits seen by the Financial Times newspaper.
Such incidents have made people skeptical about him as their president.