Asif Ali Zardari, who stepped down Sunday after five years as president of Pakistan, does not seem likely to go down in history as one of that country’s great leaders.
To begin with, he was an accidental president, elected in 2008 on a sympathy vote to succeed his assassinated wife, the formidable Benazir Bhutto, a two-time prime minister.
Zardari, 58, was widely viewed as corrupt. Pakistan’s powerful military muttered – sometimes behind his back, sometimes openly – about ousting him in a coup. Zardari feared that his own security service was plotting to kill him.
He was the object of a vendetta by several senior judges, including one who was determined to unseat him on corruption charges.
He has a political tin ear. When devastating floods in 2010 displaced hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis from their homes, Zardari elected not to interrupt his vacation at the family estate in France.
An attempt to broker a peace in the restive province of western Baluchistan failed badly. The Taliban regularly threatened to kill him. He was a figure of ridicule in the country’s newspapers.
When the political going got rough, Zardari regularly retreated to his second home, in Dubai.
The country’s economy is a wreck. The International Monetary Fund last week had to approve a $6.6 billion emergency loan on top of an earlier $5.3 billion emergency loan.
In May, Zardari’s political party, the Pakistan People’s Party, was nearly wiped out at the polls. In June, his longtime rival, Nawaz Sharif, was named prime minister.
During his years in power, Zardari accomplished little except for one singular achievement. He became the first elected president in Pakistan’s 66-year history to finish out his entire five-year term.
As Adil Najam, a Boston University professor of international relations, inelegantly if accurately told The New York Times, “Zardari’s achievement is to walk away from high power with a smile on his face – not going out in a coffin, or in handcuffs, or in disgrace.”
Those might not be the words Zardari would want chiseled over the door of the presidential palace, but no other freely elected Pakistani president can make that claim.