ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto once plagued by corruption charges, was elected president of Pakistan on Saturday and now must lead his troubled country out of the deepest crisis it has faced in years.
Zardari, 53, who overwhelmingly won the election in the country’s parliament and provincial assemblies, will succeed former President Pervez Musharraf, who resigned almost three weeks ago after Zardari pressed supporters and allies to impeach him.
Musharraf, the former army chief who seized power in a 1999 bloodless coup, was a key U.S. ally in the fight against militants. Zardari and his Pakistan People’s Party have been eager to show that their coalition government elected in February is a better choice to fight terrorism. In a statement, Zardari said the party had fulfilled Bhutto’s dream by retrieving the presidency from a dictator.
“It is the end of dictatorship,” said Rehman Malik, the Interior Ministry chief, after Zardari won. “There is no army, there is civilian rule.”
Zardari will become the most powerful civilian president in his country’s 61 years, dominated by military rulers. He inherits a nuclear-armed country considered crucial to the world’s security but that in recent months has been hit by crisis after crisis, from food inflation to a currency that fell to its lowest level ever against the dollar.
His government will face tremendous pressure from both the U.S. and the Pakistani people in the war on terrorism. The U.S. wants Pakistan to do more against insurgents; many Pakistanis believe the war is only fueling militancy. Zardari is considered pro-West, but it is not clear how much control his government will be able to exert over the military, the strongest institution in Pakistan.
The government faces a tough balancing act, illustrated by the cross-border ground attack by U.S. forces Wednesday that Pakistani officials say killed 15 civilians in the tribal areas. The attack was universally condemned in Pakistan; in reaction, on Saturday, the government suspended all supplies through a key border checkpoint to NATO-led troops in Afghanistan, the defense minister announced.
Underscoring the challenges faced by Pakistan, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing Saturday near Peshawar that killed at least 17 people.