September 7, 2008 / 6:27 AM / 10 years ago

Pakistan's Zardari urged to change image and focus

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, must dispel the perception he is an artful politician and urgently address a deteriorating economy and worsening militant violence, newspapers said on Sunday.

Pakistani President elect Asif Ali Zardari, widower of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, stands with his daughters Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari (L) and Asifa Bhutto Zardari (R) as he speaks with parliamentarians and supporters of his ruling political party PPP at a celebration reception dinner in Islamabad September 6, 2008. REUTERS/Pakistan Peoples Party/Handout

Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, swept a presidential election by legislators on Saturday, winning 481 of 702 electoral college votes to cement his hold on power in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Zardari spent 11 years in jail on corruption and murder charges and although he was never convicted, and denied any wrongdoing, he faces widespread doubts about his suitability to be president.

A split in the ruling coalition last month amid accusations that Zardari had broken promises on resolving a long-running judicial dispute only added to the questions.

“The challenges ahead are enormous,” the News said in an editorial.

“For a starter, he needs a quick and complete makeover of his image from a wily politician ... not mindful of whether he was breaking his promises or losing his credibility,” it said.

The Dawn newspaper agreed.

“What Mr Zardari needs to do is dispel the impression that he is a political wheeler-dealer who is adept at making backroom deals but unable to rise to the requirements of statesmanship,” it said in an editorial.

Investors and foreign allies led by the United States hope the election will bring some stability after months of political turmoil and rising militant violence. The uncertainty has dragged Pakistani stocks and the rupee sharply lower.

An early test for Zardari will be whether he keeps a promise, that he reiterated after his victory on Saturday, to strip the presidency of the power to dismiss parliament.

“If Mr Zardari fails to keep his word again his credibility and democratic credentials will be in tatters,” Dawn said.

“BREAKING DOWN THE DOOR”

With inflation at nearly 25 percent, dwindling foreign reserves, a widening current account deficit and a sliding rupee, newspapers said the government had to focus on the economy.

Dawn said the government, led by Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), had done little to halt the economic slide since it was formed after a February general election.

“The PPP-led coalition government, now in the sixth month of its existence, has not arranged any significant amount of money to prop up the economy,” it said.

A former businessman, Zardari is close to the United States and has stressed Pakistan’s commitment to the deeply unpopular campaign against militancy. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed Zardari’s election and praised what she said was his emphasis on fighting terrorism.

But Zardari is taking office at a time when many Pakistanis see the United States as a threat, especially after a bloody incursion by U.S. ground troops hunting suspected militants in a village on the Afghan border on Wednesday.

“The sovereignty of the country is at risk,” the News said.

Dawn said relations between the United States and Pakistan were at their lowest ebb since the September 11 attacks.

“Mr Zardari must use his new office to defuse the crisis .... it is simply too dangerous to have the Americans breaking down the door to Pakistan,” it said.

People read newspapers headlining the victory of Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, in Pakistan's presidential election in Islamabad September 7, 2008. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

But Zardari could be torn as he tries to reassure the United States of a tough stand while calming the anger of the many Pakistanis opposed to the U.S.-led campaign.

The Nation newspaper said in tackling militancy, Zardari should listen to the people.

“Not only their sensitivities but also the supreme national interest call for a negotiated rather than a military solution to the problem,” it said.

Writing by Robert Birsel

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