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Asif Ali Zardari (Urdu, Sindhi: آصف علی زرداری) (born 26 July 1955) is the 11th and current President of Pakistan and the Co-Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Zardari is the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who twice served as Prime Minister of Pakistan. When his wife was assassinatedmarker in December 2007, he became the leader of the PPP. Zardari is among the five richest men in Pakistan with an estimated net worth of US$1.8 billion (2005).

Early life and education

Asif Ali Zardari belongs to a Shia Muslim, Sindhi Baloch family from Sindhmarker. He was born in Karachi and is the son of Hakim Ali Zardari, head of one of the Sindhi tribes, who chose urban life over rustic surroundings. His mother is from the family of Khan Bahadur Hassan Ali , who was among the founders of the first educational institution in Sindh, "Sindh Madarsa-tul-Islam Karachi".

Zardari received his primary education from the Karachi Grammar School and his secondary education from Cadet College, Petaro. While a candidate for parliament, a position for which a 2002 rule requires a college degree, Zardari claimed to have graduated from a college in London.

Government service under Bhutto

Zardari married Benazir Bhutto on 18 December 1987. In 1988 his wife won the seat of Prime Minister, and Zardari became a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan. He served as investment and environment minister in Bhutto's governments. It was during this time that Zardari's opponents began using the nickname, "Mr 10%", in reference to the charges of corruption against him.

Bhutto's government lost in the 1990 elections. Zardari soon came under investigation in Switzerland over alleged receipts of kickbacks from two Swiss-based companies. Zardari claimed the charges were political in nature, and in 2008 Switzerland closed the case and released Zardari's frozen assets. The chief prosecutor said he had no evidence to bring Zardari to trial.

When Bhutto returned to office in 1993, Zardari was released from jail and became a government minister. In 1996, after a change of government, Zardari was again arrested. From 1997 to 2004, Zardari was kept in jail on various corruption charges and accusations of murder. Pakistani investigators accused Zardari and his wife Benazir for embezzling as much as US$1.5 billion from government accounts. He was also accused of allegedly plotting the murder of Murtaza Bhutto, the brother of his wife Benazir Bhutto. He was later cleared. Another allegation involved an estate in Surreymarker which Pakistani press speculated was purchased by Zardari. Zardari's financial history was one case study in a 1999 US Senate report on various vulnerabilities in banking procedures.

A New York psychiatrist found in March 2007 that Zardari's time in jail left him with memory impairments. Zardari claims to have been tortured. When Zardari stood for the Pakistani presidency in 2008, the Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, said that Zardari had no current mental condition requiring psychiatric help or medication.

In October 2007, the president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, issued the National Reconciliation Ordinance which granted amnesty to politicians in office from 1986 to 1999.

Co-chairman of the PPP

Benazir Bhutto was assassinatedmarker on 27 December 2007, shortly after returning to Pakistan from exile. On 30 December 2007, Asif Ali Zardari became the co-chairman of the PPP, along with his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is currently studying at Oxford. Bilawal is intended to fully assume the post when he completes his education.

After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Zardari reaffirmed his lack of interest in the prime ministership. Chairman Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML-N, along with some smaller political parties, joined forces in an electoral coalition that won a heavy majority in the elections and unseated Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q). After the election, he called for a government of national unity, and divided cabinet portfolios among coalition partners on proportionate basis. Asif Ali Zardari and former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on 21 February 2008 that their parties would work together in the national parliament after scoring big wins in the election.

On 5 March 2008, Zardari was cleared of five corruption charges as part of a court ruling which "abolished the cases against all public office holders" under the National Reconciliation Ordinance. He had another trial on the remaining charges on 14 April 2008, when he was cleared under the same NRO.

On 19 April 2008, Zardari announced in a press conference in London that he and his sister, Faryal Talpur, would participate in the by-elections taking place on 3 June and that, if necessary, he would contest to become the country's next Prime Minister, even though his party voted by a 2/3 majority to announce that Yousaf Raza Gillani would be the PM for a five year term.

Presidential candidacy

Zardari, in alliance with Nawaz Sharif, was preparing to impeach president Pervez Musharraf, and a charge-sheet and draft of impeachment had already been prepared, when Musharraf, in accordance with his advisors, resigned from the presidency on 18 August 2008. Chairman Zardari was confirmed by the Central Executive Committee of the PPP as well as endorsed by the rival ethnic party MQM as candidate for the post of President of Pakistan. There was nevertheless strong disagreement among the current coalition partners, and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party was threatening to leave the coalition as a result. According to the Constitution, elections must be held within 30 days of the previous president stepping down. The electoral college is composed of the Senate, the National Assembly, and the four provincial assemblies.

Pakistan's Election Commission on 22 August announced that a presidential election would be held on 6 September, and the nomination papers could be filed from 26 August.

The New York Times reported that Zalmay Khalilzad, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, had been unofficially advising Asif Ali Zardari. Khalilzad, an Afghan native, had been rumored to be flirting with the possibility of returning home to challenge President Hamid Karzai when his first term expired in 2009.

President of Pakistan

Zardari was elected president of Pakistan, as Chief election commissioner Qazi Mohammad Farooq announced that "Asif Ali Zardari secured 281 votes out of the 426 valid votes polled in the parliament," In Sindhmarker, Zardari had 62 of the 65 electoral votes while his two main opponents got zero votes; in North West Frontier Province Zardari got 56 votes against 5 by Siddiqui and one by Hussain; in Balochistan, 59 votes while Siddiqui and Hussain got 2 each. However, Zardari did not win the majority in the nation's biggest province, Punjab, where the PML-N's Siddiqui got a clear majority. BBC reported that Zardari "won 481 votes, far more than the 352 votes that would have guaranteed him victory." New York Times said that Zardari would be sworn in "as soon as Saturday night or as late as Monday or Tuesday, diplomats and officials said."

Zardari was challenged by Justice (Retired) Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, a former judge nominated by Nawaz Sharif's PML-N, and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, who was nominated by the PML-Q, which backed Musharraf. According to the Constitution of 1973 presently in vogue (but declared for major amendments by Zardari) the President of Pakistan, who must be a Muslim, is elected by an electoral college composed of members of the two houses of parliament - the 342 seat lower house National Assembly and the 100 member upper house Senate, as well as members of the four provincial assemblies - Sindhmarker, Punjabmarker, North West Frontiermarker and Balochistanmarker. The assemblies have total of 1170 seats, but the number of electoral college votes is 702 since provincial assembly votes are counted on a proportional basis. The new president, who obtains the largest number of votes, will serve for five years as Pakistan's 11th president since 1956, when the country became an Islamic Republic, excluding acting presidents and CMLAs during times of military rule. Voting was in progress at the Parliament House, while the Senate members finished casting their votes.

Zardari was sworn in by Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar in a ceremony at the presidential palace on September 9, 2008. He addressed the parliament for the first time on September 20, 2008, but the event was overshadowed by the suicide bomb blast which destroyed the Marriott Hotel, Islamabad. Although Asif Ali Zardari was elected constitutionally, he was administered the oath of office by Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar who took oath as Chief Justice of Pakistan under the Provisional Constitutional Order. Earlier, a supreme court ruling by a 7-member bench of the SC had overturned the PCO. The ruling by the 7-member bench stated: "Appointment of the chief justice or judges of the Supreme Court or chief justices of the high courts under the new PCO would be unlawful and without jurisdiction."

Shafqat Mahmood, a former associate of Ms Bhutto, has said: "Mr Zardari has an image problem, because of a lingering reputation of corruption, despite not having been convicted of any wrongdoing. He will need to change this image.”

Constitutional reform

In 2009, President Zardari told the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that he wished to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan Article 58 2(b) of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan to limit the powers of the President of Pakistan that had been expanded by previous administrations.

Relationships with world leaders

Zardari picked China for first state visit after being elected in September 2008. He went to the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly on 25 September 2008 and 25 September 2009 respectively, and gave his trademark speech with a framed picture of his assassinated wife, the late Benazir Bhutto nearby to remind the world that he's her husband. Chinese President Hu Jintao has pledged to work with Zardari to build a stronger political and economic partnership between the two countries.

On September 24, 2008 while in the United States, Zardari met the U.S Republican Party's Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. His tongue-in-cheek comments to Palin, while shaking hands, that "I might hug you", created controversy and was the cause for a (non-violent) 'fatwa' against him because his "praise of a non-Muslim lady wearing a short skirt" was un-Islamic.

Zardari met with U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at the White House in May 2009 to discuss security issues in the region.

Upon the re-election of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Asif Ali Zardari phoned Dr. Singh and offered his congratulations and an offer to work with the Indian government to address challenges in the region.

In October 2009, he met with Pope Benedict XVI in order to discuss the situation of Pakistani Christians in context of blasphemy law.

References

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