Zero hour for Zardari

By common consent Pakistan stands at a critical juncture. The Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan has spread into its western tribal areas, where al-Qaida and Taliban militants are now firmly established. The "war on terror" alliance with the US is under severe strain as Washington noisily criticises the army's failure to curb extremism.

Meanwhile 71% of Pakistanis, according to a recent poll, believe all counter-terrorism cooperation with the US should be halted.

Chronic poverty among an expanding population of about 160 million is being exacerbated by sharply rising food and energy prices that if unchecked, may provoke civil disturbances and further fuel the Islamist fire. According to figures published this week, Pakistan is running a 7.2% budget deficit. Its foreign currency reserves are rapidly depleting. On present trends, the prospect of a default on external payments and an emergency IMF bailout looks very real.

On top of this pile of daunting problems has come yet another political crisis following the enforced resignation last month of Pervez Musharraf, the country's president and military strongman for most of the past decade. His political enemies, who include the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's party (PPP) and followers of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, greeted his departure with jubilation.

But now the awkward problem of replacing him must be faced.

"Now that Musharraf has gotten the heave-ho, which was fun while it lasted, the squabbling parties face the distressing fact that the public will have no one to blame for the escalating internal mess but them," wrote Sayeed Hasan Khan and Kurt Jacobsen in the Dawn newspaper. "Musharraf, a useful distraction, soon will be missed even by his very worst enemies."

There is in truth little doubt who Pakistan's next president will be. Having won the advance support of three out of four provincial assemblies and of a majority in the national parliament, Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower, is assured of election on Saturday. Sherry Rehman, PPP spokeswoman, says he is the right man for the job. "Zardari is the consensus candidate ... Only a leadership capable of forging national unity can steer the country out of the crisis brought upon us by a decade of non-democratic rule," she said.

That is a highly contentious claim. Zardari is notorious in Pakistan for allegedly exploiting his late wife's premiership to fill his own pockets, earning the derisive nickname of "Mr Ten Percent". After Bhutto left office, he spent 11 years in prison on corruption and other charges but was never convicted. Now the charges have been quietly dropped while similar allegations against Nawaz, his disputatious former ally, have been resurrected.

Zardari has next to no experience of elective office or executive responsibility. According to a poll by ARY, an independent television channel, he registers the lowest voter approval rating among presidential candidates. But in hallowed Pakistani tradition insider political deal-making, including a recent pact with the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami religious party to halt military operations against militants in Swat, will ensure he gets the job.

In short, Zardari does not immediately stand out as the person best equipped to tackle Pakistan's myriad problems. Yet because he is expected to renege on a promise to curb the sweeping authority accumulated by Musharraf, he is set to become the country's most powerful civilian president ever. Some see this as a high price to pay for democracy.

"Some people call Pakistan a rogue state. Now it's going to be a rogue's state," said a former senior government official. "Zardari will have the power to appoint a prime minister, dissolve parliament and appoint the chief of the armed forces. He will be in charge of the nuclear command authority, which oversees Pakistan's nuclear weapons arsenal. His style of leadership combines arrogance with ignorance and cronyism. He has no real party platform. What we are looking at is the rise of a civilian dictator."

So harsh a verdict, delivered before Zardari takes office, may be a trifle premature. Less impassioned observers say two factors are key to whether he will be an effective leader. One is the attitude of the US. On pragmatic grounds but also because of its ideological commitment to supporting democracy, Washington has taken a back seat so far as the political process unfolds. For his part Zardari pledged this week to maintain the US alliance and help prosecute the "war on terror". But his reliability is questioned.

The other, crucial factor affecting Zardari's prospects and continued good health is his relationship with the army. If he keeps on the right side of the generals, he may keep his head. But a failed attempt to rein in the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency has already caused a frisson. And critics suggest his habit of over-reaching is likely, sooner or later, to bring him into conflict with army chiefs.

"Some people compare him to Nawaz Sharif [who was ousted by Musharraf and the army in 1999]," the former official said. "But a more accurate comparison may be with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto." That is a chilling thought. In one of Pakistan's blackest hours, Benazir's father, a former president and prime minister and founder of the PPP, was deemed by the military to have got above himself. He was executed in 1979.

Simon Tisdall