ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The widower of assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto said Saturday that he will run for the presidency, reviving questions about his cloudy political past and the future of the U.S. alliance with Pakistan.
The decision by Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the largest party in Pakistan’s ruling coalition government, comes nearly a week after Pervez Musharraf stepped down from the presidency rather than face impeachment.
Zardari received a unanimous vote of support from his party Friday.
Known for years as “Mr. 10 Percent” for his conviction on corruption charges in the 1990s, Zardari became an unlikely hero for his party when he took the helm after Bhutto’s assassination Dec. 27. He then helped the party win a sweeping victory in national parliamentary elections in February.
Zardari, 52, had hinted two weeks ago that he might not run for president, suggesting instead that his Pakistan People’s Party might support a woman for the post.
Raza Rabbani, a senior Pakistan People’s Party official, said the party expects Zardari to win the presidency when parliament votes on Musharraf’s replacement Sept. 6. Rabbani called Zardari’s leadership “commendable” and praised him for helping to form the ruling coalition government.
But Zardari’s ascendancy appeared far from certain, as signs of cracks in the coalition government emerged this week.
Shortly after Musharraf stepped down, Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of the other party in the ruling coalition, vowed to reinstate Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and dozens of other judges deposed last year under Musharraf’s government.
Since signing an agreement to restore the judges, Zardari and Sharif have been locked in a political tug of war over which judges to reinstall.
Sharif has pressed hard for Chaudhry’s reinstatement. But analysts say Chaudhry, who earned a reputation for challenging corruption, could use his power to renew corruption charges against Zardari if the chief justice is allowed to return to the bench.
Zardari, who served several years in prison in Pakistan on corruption charges, is currently facing money-laundering charges in Switzerland. But under a deal reached with Musharraf last year, Zardari was essentially granted amnesty from further prosecution in Pakistan on corruption charges. Zardari was also acquitted in the murder of Bhutto’s brother in 1996.