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Absent President Ignites Rumors In Pakistan

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari speaks in Sri Lanka on Nov. 29. The president has been treated at a hospital in Dubai since Dec. 6. Aides say he is recovering.
Ishara S. Kodikara
AFP/Getty Images
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari speaks in Sri Lanka on Nov. 29. The president has been treated at a hospital in Dubai since Dec. 6. Aides say he is recovering.

Pakistan is a country where rumors are always flowing. So when President Asif Ali Zardari was rushed to a hospital in the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 6, it set off all sorts of speculation.

His aides are doing their best to quell talk that he might step down. They say Zardari has been undergoing treatment and tests for a pre-existing heart ailment, and is recovering well in Dubai.

But that hasn't stopped politicians from considering what Pakistan's political landscape might look like without him.

Zardari won the presidency three years ago with an outpouring of public sympathy following the assassination of his wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

He's had a tumultuous term in office that has included widespread violence in Pakistan, the spillover effects of the war in Afghanistan and increasing friction with the United States. And like all Pakistani civilian leaders, he often appears to have less authority than Pakistan's military, the country's most powerful institution.

'Memogate' Scandal

His latest problem is a scandal known as "memogate." It refers to a letter that Pakistan's ambassador in Washington allegedly passed to Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The letter was sent in May, shortly after U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The U.S. carried out the raid without giving the Pakistanis advance notice, and angered many in Pakistan.

The memo asked for U.S. help in preventing a military takeover in Pakistan, and promised that in return, Pakistan would align its policies with those of the U.S., especially when it came to Afghanistan.

Akram Sheikh, a senior advocate before the Supreme Court of Pakistan, believes that Zardari himself approved the memo. Sheikh says that if that's true, then the president should be charged with something worse than treason for "waging war against Pakistan and conspiring against Pakistan's solidarity [and] sovereignty."

"This constitutes a violation on the part of Mr. Asif Ali Zardari of the oath of his office," says Sheikh.

Zardari was scheduled to appear before a joint session of parliament to testify about the memo affair. His sudden departure for Dubai fueled speculation he was trying to avoid what was sure to be a difficult public appearance.

Zardari's Son: Treatment Going Well

Mushahid Hussain Syed, is the secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League's so-called Q faction, and his party belongs to Zardari's ruling coalition. Syed says he spoke directly with the president's son, Bilawal, about Zardari's physical condition.

"It's not life-threatening," Syed says. "[Bilawal] said that the treatment is proceeding well, and that he expects that his father will be back soon within a matter of days after the completion of the treatment."

Zardari supporters insist that the president is coming back, and say he has nothing to fear from a parliamentary inquiry.

Opposition parties sense that the episode will leave Zardari weakened politically.

Ahsan Iqbal is the deputy secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League's N faction, named for its leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Zardari's departure could weaken his Peoples Party of Pakistan, the PPP, and provide an opening for its rivals, says Iqbal.

"It will be a new beginning for the Peoples' Party because the past three-and-a-half years have been dominated by his presidency and by his leadership of the party, which has come under a lot of criticism," Iqbal says.

Regardless of Zardari's political fate, his coalition ally, Mushahid Husain Syed, says he thinks Pakistan's civilian political culture has gotten stronger and will survive.

"Please don't forget that Mr. Zardari was an accidental president," he said. "He became president after the assassination of his wife, Ms. Benazir Bhutto. So in Pakistan, the political system has a certain resilience and a certain continuity, which I think would remain unaffected."

Many observers think Pakistan's political system will need all the resilience it can muster should Zardari resign. Pakistan's constitution says elections for a new president would have to be held within 30 days.

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