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Where is Zardari?

Asif Ali Zardari has been invisible on the election campaign and presides over a ruling party in crisis. His Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has been rudderless ahead of Saturday's vote. Zardari's government is the first in Pakistan to complete a full five-year term and hand over to another democratically elected administration, yet no PPP leader has led the party's campaign for re-election.

The major rallies once addressed by his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, and her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, were cancelled in the face of Taliban threats. His son and the PPP chairman, Bilawal, speaks in TV adverts but has gone to ground. Helped by the army chief of staff's determination to keep to the sidelines and the opposition's unwillingness to force early elections, analysts credit Zardari's wheeler-dealer abilities for keeping him in power.

The 57-year-old survived enormous pressure from a judiciary determined to put him on trial for corruption, sacrificing his first prime minister, but otherwise has emerged relatively unscathed. In 2010, Zardari earned some praise for relinquishing much of his power to the prime minister, rolling back on decades of meddling by military rulers in an effort to institutionalise parliamentary democracy.

But whether reforms that his government introduced can get the PPP re-elected remains doubtful and his record in government has been weak. The administration has been pilloried for being ineffectual, presiding over a deteriorating economy and being unable to stem Taliban attacks. He has suffered abysmal personal approval ratings and is almost never seen in public.

Relations between the United States have been deeply troubled. In a country where the military still has a tight hold on foreign policy, Zardari is a close but often considered an ineffectual US ally. His future role will depend on the PPP's showing at the polls. Bilawal is now sole chairman of the party and will in September be old enough to run for parliament. Many expect Zardari to beat a hasty retreat back to Dubai or slip back again into the shadows.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013


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