Page last updated at 10:37 GMT, Saturday, 6 September 2008 11:37 UK

The 'master plan' to save Pakistan

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Islamabad

Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari
Asif Zardari lived in Benazir Bhutto's shadow

The victory of Asif Zardari, husband of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in Pakistan's presidential election represents an extraordinary turnaround for the most mistrusted politician in the country.

As her husband, Mr Zardari lived in Ms Bhutto's shadow.

He proved to be a weak link in her political armour, repeatedly being charged with corruption and earning the infamous nickname, "Mr 10%".

He spent eight long years in jail while Pervez Musharraf was president. He was released in 2004 as part of political haggling between General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto.

Proven wrong

He was thrust into the centre stage after his wife's assassination in December 2007, when he became the de facto leader of their Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

The future could be guaranteed for the next generation of PPP leadership, if we play it right
PPP insider

Many doubted his ability to lead the country's largest political party. Others simply said it marked the beginning of the end for the PPP.

But thus far Mr Zardari has proven them all wrong.

After the PPP's success in February's elections, Mr Zardari engineered a coalition government that included the PPP's historical rival, the PML-N of former Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Zardari then played a Machiavellian game in which the two men worked to force President Musharraf to resign, rather than risk being impeached.

Nawaz Sharif
Nawaz Sharif could face a long battle with Mr Zardari

Mr Zardari then locked horns with Mr Sharif, refusing to fulfil pledges to restore judges sacked by Mr Musharraf or to reduce the powers of the president.

In fact, Mr Zardari announced that he himself would stand for president, rather than support Mr Sharif's option of supporting a non-partisan person for the post.

As a result, Mr Sharif opted to leave the coalition.

Long-term battle

As long as the remaining parties in the coalition stand firm, Mr Zardari looks certain to win Saturday's election.

However, he could be facing a longer term all-out battle with Mr Sharif, the most popular politician in the country, that many analysts believe could eventually wipe out the PPP.

Asif Zardari
Mr Zardari was nicknamed 'Mr 10%'

However, some Zardari confidantes say he has a grand master plan developed by Benazir.

It starts with a deal with the country's most powerful institution, the army. Mr Zardari's government will protect their interests, taking into account the army's foreign strategic concerns and making sure its share of the national budget is well stocked.

The government will ensure a steady supply of aid and equipment from the US to meet the army's needs to keep up with its giant neighbour, India.

In return, the army will go all out to defeat the militants in Pakistan's tribal areas and keep out of national politics, party insiders say.

The PPP would be able to offer the one thing the United States most wants, all-out war on the Taleban and their al-Qaeda associates using Pakistan's full resources.

For this, the PPP has made it clear to the US and the army that it needs as much power as possible, and that means having PPP people as president and prime minister.

'Future guaranteed'

It also means scrapping any talk of reducing the power of the president. "It would be counter productive to our aims for the future of the party," says a confidante.

Aftermath of attack on army munitions factory, August 2008
Militants have grown more daring over the last two years

So the obvious next question is how the PPP can use all of this to shore up its electoral strength.

"The future could be guaranteed for the next generation of PPP leadership, if we play it right," says a party insider.

This would be done by using the massive aid Pakistan expects to receive in return for its "good performance" in the "war on terror".

The plan would be to spend most of the aid in deeply rural areas where Pakistan's closest political battles are fought - the southern Punjab, eastern North West Frontier Province and northern Sindh province.

The linchpin in the plans is Mr Zardari. "If he can maintain this position and ensure the plan is carried out, Bibi [Ms Bhutto] will have won even in death," a PPP insider says.

The broad outlines of the plan are simple enough. But there are reasons to be sceptical.

In Pakistan, what can go wrong generally does go wrong.

It wasn't that long ago that the then President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto were working on a grand master plan that fell apart with her assassination.

Mr Zardari's military hopes rest on the assumption - not universally shared - that the army can defeat the Islamist militants, and that it will co-operate with the PPP after years of mutual mistrust.

As far as popular support goes, the PPP has got its work cut out to reverse the country's ever-worsening economic woes.

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