Zardari Report Card: Year One

It’s been a tumultuous first year in office for President Zardri, though not one without progress. Following decades of economic misrule and appeasement of religious extremism, Zardari faced a significant uphill battle when he took office. At the time, many were ready to write off Pakistan as a “failed state,” and conversations often turned to questions of whether Pakistan would be the first Islamist nuclear power.

While the road has been rocky, Zardari has managed to keep the ship upright, and in recent months has made progress towards greater democratization and cooperation with the world community. This has not come without significant political costs as Zardari faces a political opposition and media fueled by rumor and innuendo, as well as a ruthless political climate.

Pakistan Assembly member and PPP spokesperson Farahnaz Ispahani notes the following Zardari successes:

Prudent policies implemented after President Zardari’s election are yielding results. By end-June 2009, fiscal deficit had declined from a high of 7.4% to 4.3% of GDP, current account balance has declined from 8.4% to 5.3% of GDP and inflation had decelerated from a high of 25.3% in August 2008 to 13.1% by end-June 2009 year-on-year basis. Home remittances from Overseas Pakistanis reached a historic high of $ 7.811 billion and the trade deficit declined by 16.5% compared to last year. Foreign Direct Investment started to pick up again and stands at $3.721 billion despite adverse domestic and global environment. Gross foreign exchange reserves have moved back to three months imports (over $ 12 billion).

President Zardari’s principal achievement, however, is that he has proven wrong the prophets of doom and gloom. Pursuing the spirit of reconciliation articulated by Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto in her final days, the president has reached out across the political spectrum. Unlike some who prefer to seek approval by doing what is temporarily popular, President Zardari is willing to take difficult decisions and make tough choices. He has been elected for a five-year term and he need not seek applause on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. As a democrat he remains tolerant of criticism and has put up with a constant chorus trying to run him down.

As we know too well, though, Zardari’s successes have not come without setbacks. Tuesday, Taliban militants in Pakistan opened fire on schoolchildren, murdering four and critically wounding six others. Despite the government’s willingness to legitimately fight Islamic terrorists, militants remain a significant threat to security and stability. Clearly, Zardari has a long road ahead.

At the end of his first year, we award Zardari a grade of B+. While many might see this as too high a mark considering Pakistan’s continuing challenges, we believe that these challenges create the context in which Zardari’s efforts and achievements must be judged.

This is not to say that things cannot go sour. Zardari continues to face political resistance to cooperation with the West, while having to deal with the growing security threat from Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

In addition, there is some room for improvement – particularly with regard to relations with India over Kashmir, Afghanistan, and trade. Historical animosity on both sides make this a delicate situation, but progress cannot be achieved without Zardari making the tough choice to demonstrate that cooperation works better than antagonization.

What happens in Year Two will largely be the result of Zardari’s ability to maintain a strong will in the face of these challenges, as well as the continued support of Western powers like the US and EU nations.