Washington, Jan 6: The Bush Administration after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is now depending on two politicians, Asif Ali Zardari and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, to keep President Pervez Musharraf in power and stabilise Pakistan, the Washington Post quoted US officials and regional experts, as saying.
Zardari, who is known as "Mr. 10 Percent" for alleged corruption charges will remain caretaker of the PPP, Pakistan's largest opposition movement until his 19-year-old son finishes studies at Oxford, the paper reported. Zardari represents the old, entrenched faction of the PPP that resisted modernisation of politics and sees parties as an extension of family politics, said Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who led the party during Bhutto's eight-year exile, is the party candidate to become Prime Minister if the PPP wins the largest vote in the February 18 elections and forms a coalition government, the Post said.
According to US officials and Pakistani experts, Fahim lacks both charisma and clout. Fahim is unknown and not a strong player. As a feudal landlord, he represents the Pakistani elite in a party dependent on the poor for the majority of its membership. As long as he is tied to Zardari, it will also be difficult for him to gain leverage with Musharraf or pressure him into reform," said Farhana Ali of the Rand Corp.
Although the US is in touch with many Pakistani politicians, but Washington is still hoping that the deal it tried to broker between Bhutto and Musharraf remains the way to salvage the Musharraf regime, said a US official.
But the personality and political dynamics have changed dramatically with Bhutto gone, especially within the PPP, the officials added.
The biggest uncertainity at the moment is which way the PPP will go. For the Bush Administration, the worst-case scenario is the PPP aligning with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a coalition to try to change the Constitution and oust Musharraf, said Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution.
A political alliance between the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz was once as unlikely as a Democratic-Republican coalition in the US, said Lawrence K. Robinson, a former US diplomat in Pakistan.
Sharif will not rest until Musharraf, who toppled him in a 1999 military coup, is ousted, Robinson said. "And there's such a strong feeling now in the PPP that Musharraf is just like Zia ul-Haq, just another Islamist-loving military dictator who had a role in the death of a Bhutto," he added. Former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father, was hanged during Mohammed Zia ul-Haq's rule.
Zardari and Musharraf also have a history of hostility. Zardari was in prison under Musharraf and has been an outspoken critic of Musharraf since his release.
After Bhutto's death, he accused Musharraf of criminal negligence, and referred repeatedly to a party allied with the President as "the killer league."
At the same time, Zardari is disliked by many in the PPP and is expected to struggle to keep its three major factions together.
His claim to control rests on Bhutto's will, in which she reportedly named her husband as her successor. He also comes to the job with significant baggage, including a reputation for lavish living on the taxpayer's money.
However, supporters dispute the image, saying that Zardari matured in prison and could be a serious political actor.
"Most of the charges were never proven. The government filed a plethora of cases, and they dragged on for 11 years. He served more time awaiting trial than he would have gotten if he had been tried and convicted of any crimes," said Husain Haqqani, a Boston University professor.
Others note that Swiss authorities also indicted Zardari in 1998 for money laundering. "It may have been exaggerated, but the reputation is not inaccurate," said Frederic Grare of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Fahim also has no national following; a key reason Bhutto selected him to lead the party in her absence.
Haqqani compared him to Gerald Ford, "meaning a mild consensus builder who moves cautiously."
If Fahim becomes Prime Minister, other experts caution that he may be easily manipulated by Zardari or Musharraf and would not be a strong voice for a moderate centre -- the US goal for Pakistan, the Post concluded.