On the wall above Asif Ali Zardari’s dining table in Islamabad is a framed copy of a letter. The handwriting is small and neat and it looks nothing special but he frequently grabs it from the wall to show to visitors. For on this piece of paper rests the remarkable rise of the man for years vilified as Mr Ten Percent, who this weekend looks set to become Pakistan’s President.
The letter is written by his late wife Benazir Bhutto, and dated 16 October 2007, two days before her return to Pakistan from exile, and 11 weeks before her assassination. Addressed to supporters of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to be opened in the event of her death, she wrote it at her home in Dubai shortly after receiving a delegation from foreign intelligence services warning her she would be killed if she went back. ‘I would like my husband Asif Ali Zardari to lead you in this interim period until you and he decide what is best,’ it states. ‘I say this because he is a man of courage and honour. He spent 11 and a half years in prison without bending despite torture.’
‘You see,’ he said to me over lunch at his house last month, as he jabbed at the text. ‘She knew I was the only one with the strength to hold it all together.’
When Zardari produced this ‘political will’ at the first meeting of the party leadership after Bhutto’s assassination at the end of December, her long-time associates were stunned. Zardari had long been known as anything from Mr Ten Percent to Mr Thirty Percent and his alleged corruption was widely regarded as the reason for the early demise of Bhutto’s two governments. ‘Zardari? I don’t believe it,’ was the reaction of one of Bhutto’s oldest advisers in London, when I contacted him with the news.