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Q&A With Asif Ali Zardari

The widower of Benazir Bhutto.

11:00 PM, Feb 12, 2008 • By URS GEHRIGER
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Editor's Note: The following is a question and answer with Asif Ali Zardari, the controversial widower of Benazir Bhutto and Co-Chairman of the Pakistan People's Party. He is widely described as a kingmaker and a potential leader of Pakistan. In this exclusive interview with Urs Gehriger from the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, he speaks about the national elections scheduled for February 18, his political ambitions, the Islamic fundamentalist threat, and the legacy of his late wife. The interview was held on February 10.

Q: Mr. Zardari, the 40-day period of mourning after the assassination of former Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto has ended. As her political heir you have restarted the election campaign. Do you think the elections scheduled for February 18th will be held in a fair and democratic way?

A: The international election monitors have already given a verdict. In their reports they have submitted to their individual head offices and that were released to the press they say that pre poll rigging has already taken place. They have already condemned these elections as farce.

Q: Why are you going into elections which you know are not going to be fair?

A: We in the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) are going into the elections under protest. We participate but at the same time we are keeping the world's attention that we need democracy and we need free and fair elections and we show that we are not getting them. We are proving that point by participating rather than boycotting elections. And we take precedence from our history. When our late founder and leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was in the death cell the then dictator Zia ul-Hak had called for an election and PPP had decided to participate. Then the dictator ran away from the election. So we find strength and wisdom in our history. Our party has a long history in confronting dictatorships.

Q: But you run the risk that the government might try to steal an elections victory from the PPP.

A: Yes. I think they are trying to steal the victory from PPP. But I am sure with the help of the people we will try to stop them from stealing. And if they do steal we have other options open.

Q: What other options?

A: Our followers could take the streets and protest against the rigged elections. There are many venues open as such. But the idea is to first to exhaust all dialogue, exhaust all possible peaceful means, then only as a sort of a last call we would take the streets.

Q: Your wife has been murdered. There is ongoing violence in the country. Are you personally afraid for your life?

A: I have never been afraid for my life because in this part of the world we believe in "God gives, and God takes." But I'm taking precautions. I want to live. Yes, I love life like everybody else loves life. I have three children and I have a party to look after. I have a mission to accomplish. I have a meaning in life, so I want to live.

Q: Have you received any threats?

A: I haven't had any direct threats. But the people keep warning me not to expose myself in public. We have taken some of our own security measures. But obviously we have not the ability to organise full security. That is the job of the government. But the government is failing in their job.
Q: Last week you presented the one page handwritten political will of your late wife. In it she wrote to the party: "I would like my husband Asif Ali Zardari to lead you in this interim period until you and he decide what is best". To what conclusion have you come? Who should lead the party in the future?
A: I am the co-chair person of the Pakistan People Party, my son is the chairman. I co-chair it like my late wife did once. In 1979, after the murder of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, young Benazir was the co-chair person with her mother. It is history repeating itself.
Q: Why did you not take over the mantle fully? Why did you make your 19 year-old son Bilawal the chairperson while he is still studying at Oxford University?

A: I am leading the party in my own capacity. The party needs wisdom. I proposed to the Central Executive Committee, which is the largest body of the PPP, that for continuity my son should take over the leadership. The people of Pakistan are hopelessly disgruntled, they are dejected, they are hurt. The youth of Pakistan which is the majority of today needs a new beacon, a new hope. When nations have hope, nations survive.

Q: How can you justify the rather feudal practice of making a modern political party a family legacy?

A: People in the West don't understand the political mindset and political background of our region. The largest democracy in the world, India, made Indira Gandhi's son Prime Minister before the elections. He was made Prime Minister immediately when Indira Ghandi was assassinated. . . .

Whether in the Gandhi family, the Nehru family in India, the Bandaranaike family in Sri Lanka or the Bangladeshi families, the families which lead in South East Asia have to lead from a front. They have made a contribution. They have the support and the affection of the people. The affection is people's feelings. That is what democracy is all about. If you feel for somebody you consider it a democratic value. The house of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto has lost nearly all its living members in the cause of democracy. So I think, any other family of political background has given such a sacrifice to the nation. And in the homage to the nation we carry on with the legacy.

Q: Did your wife discuss the will with you when she wrote it down on October 16th last year, two days before she returned back to Pakistan?

A: No, we had no idea.

Q: Why did you wait for over a month to make the will public?

A: We showed it to the people concerned. I first showed it to her sister, then I showed it to the children, I showed it to all the important members of the highest body of the PPP. It was read out in a meeting of the Central Executive Committee and the people who mattered knew about it. It is a tradition in the East that we sit down on the 40iest day after the decease of a person and we basically disclose what the liabilities and what the possibilities are. I thought it was only fair that it should come out on the 40iest. And as it is it was good to come out as part of the second edition of her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West that has been published these days.

Q: If the PPP does win the elections, as many expect it to, would you like to take a national leadership role?

A: At the moment the party is not considering that, at the moment the party is only considering to go into the elections. And I am not standing for the membership of the parliament. You have to be a member of parliament to take an office.

Q: But you are well aware of the fact that this can be changed. There is a seat vacancy where your late wife was standing for. You could stand from there.

A: I can lead the party. That is the biggest legacy.

Q: In a recent interview with Newsweek you seemed to leave this question deliberately open. You said "I may or may not" take the role of Prime Minister.

A: It was out of context. What I was saying is that traditionally the chairman of a political party is always considered as Prime Minister.

Q: So, you are not ruling it out then?

A: The party leadership will ultimately decide who the Prime Minister candidate should be.

Q: There is quite a bit of reservation against you among Pakistani people. You were nicknamed "Mister 10 percent." When you were minister in the government of your wife you were jailed for charges that included corruption, extortion, even the murder of your brother in law Murtaza.

A: Let me put it in other terms. Pakistan is a country where the chief justice (Iftakhar Chaudry) can be charged with corruption without reason. It is a country where he can be put back into the bar and then be rearrested. There are children arrested without a charge. How can any accusation be justified or taken seriously?

Q: You would say that all cases against were inaccurate?

A: Like I said, the chief executive of the country is accusing the chief justice of being corrupt. This government is on record on admitting politically motivated cases.

Q: You have been in prison for more than eleven years. How have you changed during that time?

A: I think it taught me patience. It taught me how to resist pain. It taught me to think. It taught me to live with one's own self. Political confinement for eleven years is a difficult situation to be in. One has to learn and live from within oneself. The inner self has to be as big as the situation is or as big as the idea is. One should always think beyond one's self.

Q: Before marriage you were well known as a polo-playing Playboy. How has the marriage with Benazir Bhutto matured you?

A: First of all let me correct you here. That is what my political enemies claimed, the people who have always tried to weaken democracy. Yes I did play polo. But Pakistan is an Islamic society. We do not look up to playboys.

Q: What was your relationship with Benazir Bhutto like?

A: We were an extension of ourselves. I give you a quote from her last drive before she got martyred. Nahid, her personal secretary, told me that she was wearing silk. She told Nahid: "You know, Asif won't like it." I told her to wear cotton, because silk catches fire very easily. We were constantly in each other's spirit. What she has left behind is a policy for nearly all situations that could come and that are coming. We cover ourselves with her spirit. And when we sit on her chair we think about what she would do. Like her son said: "democracy is the best revenge". That is not the usual male response. That is what she has given us as her legacy. We can take justice to this job by guiding her philosophy and taking it around the world and making it a part of the legacy of this country.

Q: What do you say about the recent findings of the Scotland Yard investigators, who said that Benazir Bhutto was killed by the force of a suicide bombing, supporting the government's position and dismissing your party's claim that the former prime minister died from gunshots moments earlier?

A: I will say that in the party we are still deliberating the issue. We have not come to a final conclusion. We have to look into it from a lot of legal angles. The Human Rights Commission has come out with a criticism of the report. The journalists by large and far in the Pakistani press have not supported that position.

Q: Your party has protested repeatedly against the lack of security provided by the government. Do you think the government did play a role in the assassination of your wife?

A: I have asked for a United Nations inquiry. On December 27, within hours of Bhutto's murder, the 15-member U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting deploring her assassination and underlining the need to bring "perpetrators, organisers, financiers and sponsors" of the crime to justice. We have adopted that. So I would want to wait till we accomplish our mission and we bring the Untied Nations inquiry along. We wait for its conclusions before we are accusing anybody.

Q: After the first assassination attempt against Benazir Bhutto after her return to Pakistan last October you accused the government having partly responsibly for the attack. Why?

A: I was watching the live coverage of her home coming ceremony on television at my home in Dubai. I have observed that street lights began to dim and then go off as she approached. The jamming equipment that was supposed to be blocking cell phone signals, that could detonate suicide bombs, or even remote-controlled toy planes filled with explosives, for 200 meters around her truck did not seem to be working.

Q: I have heard that you made a phone call to your wife warning her. What did you say?

A: I did try to tell her that the lights were going off and I told her to go behind the bullet proof glass on the buss.

Q: What did she say to you?

A: She said: "Leave it to God".

Q: Do you know who was behind that first attempt to murder your wife?

A: I have my suspicions.

Q: Which are?

A: I would like to wait for the United Nations to investigate it.

Q: But are your suspicions leaning more towards an official side - the military or the intelligence--or rather towards a terrorist group?

A: Nobody in Pakistan buys the fact that a terrorist is on the job and is not claiming the fame.

Q: Let's look in the future. Are you in regular contact with Nawaz Sharif, whose party, the Pakistan Muslim League, is also running in the elections?

A: Yes, I am trying to keep up with Mr. Sharif, we are in contact.

Q: On what terms are those talks?

A: At the moment they are very cordial, we have never sat down and had political discussion. Life has not allowed. But I'm hoping that in the future we will have a political dialogue together.

Q: You have no bitterness to Mr. Sharif who actually jailed you when he was Prime Minister?

A: We have never taken things personally.

Q: You could imagine forming an alliance with him?

A: I have asked for a national consensus government in which everybody is aligned. That is the need of the hour. There is too much aggression, too much divide in the country. When the nation stands divided we cannot afford to divide it further.

Q: Will you work with President Musharraf? Do you recognize him as a legal president of the country?

A: The party has decided that we will face the situation once we have gone through the elections and we are in the assemblies. We are not trying to become a problem for the world. We want to be part of the solution.

Q: If you win a two third majority it could mean curtains for Musharraf. You could impeach him and even become President yourself. Is that an option for you?

A: We will come to the bridge and we will cross it. The party has decided to wait and not give its mind to anything till after the elections.

Q: But you would not rule it out?

A: I am not ruling it in either. For now we are hoping to get a two third majority with all the combined opposition.

Q: Do you believe that the Army under its new chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, will follow a different course than under Pervez Musharraf?

A: I don't think so. President Musharraf has still a very big influence on the army. We would welcome any change. Every democratic force in the world has maintained that the army has only one job, this is looking after the safety of the borders or looking after situations the civilians cannot look after. The officer cadre is only about six percent of the whole Pakistan Army. Only a few of those officers are involved in government. So, how can a few run a country of 175 million people?

Q: So, you would call them to go back into the barracks?

A: Of course, that goes without saying. We have always demanded that.

Q: What do you see as the biggest threats within Pakistan today?

A: Unemployment, Education, Terrorism.

Q: In the west there is big concern about terrorists who are getting training in Pakistan. Your country now seems to be the most popular training ground for jihadists. Your wife had a very strong and clear position against Islamic fundamentalism. What is your position?

A: Her position was the position of the PPP. We don't think there is any excuse to use aggression or terrorist tactics. There is no justification in violence as a means of communication. Nobody wants Pakistan to be a Taliban state. Nobody wants warlords here. Unfortunately the government has just been play acting in the war against terror as it did in the economy and other topics. They have the trailer but no movie.

Q: Many in the west are concerned that the nuclear facilities might fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. Should the world be concerned about the safety of the nuclear facilities in Pakistan?

A: I think the world should be considerate and concerned about Pakistan itself, of a balkanisation of the country, not just of one exclusive issue. This nation of 175 million people need to be looked into and looked after. We need to be assisted. We need to be helped. We need to be cared for.

Q: What are your expectations of the United States?

A: We are hoping that the United States will help us to form a democracy. We are hoping that they will but their force behind the policy of free and fair elections and assist Pakistan to fight terrorism which we are faced with. Terrorism is not just a scare for the US and Europe but it is a reality for us at home. If we become a talibanized state we will be the first victims.

Q: Should the US military be allowed to do some cross border missions to target terrorist groups hiding in the tribal areas in Pakistan?

A: I don't think the Americans want to conduct cross border actions. They haven't had very good experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think this issue is just a political stand used by everybody who wants to bash his or her political opponent.

Q: Late Benazir Bhutto enjoyed very good relations with US politicians and administrations. Will the PPP under your guidance try to continue this cordial partnership?

A: I don't claim that we can do anything as much as my late wife did, but we will definitely walk in her shoes and follow the same light as she could see at the end of the tunnel. The PPP believes in engaging all the political forces. We expect to work with the world. We expect to work with the Commonwealth. We expect to work with the United States of America. We expect to work with the regional powers. We are inclusive of everybody.

Interview conducted by Urs Gehriger of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche.