'Musharraf rejected Zardari as premier ahead of 2008 polls'

'Musharraf rejected Zardari as premier ahead of 2008 polls'

According to a cable sent by then US Ambassador Anne Patterson on February 7, 2008, Musharraf's National Security Adviser Tariq Aziz told the envoy that the military ruler had "responded with a firm rejection" to a suggestion floated to Aziz in Dubai by PPP leader Rehman Malik about Zardari becoming the premier after the falls.

"Aziz said it would reflect badly on Musharraf to have cut a deal to bring Benazir Bhutto back and then end up with Zardari as Prime Minister," Patterson wrote.

"They (the military regime) could support Zardari as being behind-the-scenes party leader; in fact, Aziz said they preferred this scenario as it was easier to cut deals with Zardari than it would have been with Benazir," she said.

At the time, the PPP was widely expected to sweep the general election on the back of a sympathy wave for slain party chief Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by a suicide bomber in December 2007.

A week before the election held on February 18, 2008, Zardari was asking Aziz for "advice" on "who should be Prime Minister if the PPP were asked to form the government", according to another cable sent by Patterson.

Aziz told Patterson that he had met Zardari twice in four days to discuss the issue of choosing a Prime Minister.

The US ambassador also referred to an "increasingly ugly" tussle within the PPP for the prime ministerial slot immediately before and after the general election.

At that time, Aziz and then Inter-Services Intelligence chief Nadeem Taj were trying to convince Zardari not to seek the prime ministerial slot for himself and to support PPP senior vice president Makhdoom Amin Fahim for the post.

As Zardari dithered on naming the PPP's candidate for premiership, the number of contenders grew.

The US Embassy sent their assessments of possible candidates, including at one point PML-N's Javed Hashmi and Awami National Party chief Asfandyar Wali, whose names Zardari floated in a meeting with Patterson on February 20, 2008 in an apparent attempt to prevent "government forces" from splitting the PPP.

Patterson noted that all of her contacts in the PPP were "lining up behind various contenders and seeking our support for their choices."

Referring to initial contenders from within the PPP – Makhdoom Amin Fahim, Yousuf Raza Gilani, Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Aftab Shaban Mirani – Patterson wrote in her February 7 cable: "Frankly, none of these PM contenders strike us as being the strong leader that Pakistan needs."

Patterson considered Fahim "likeable but weak" and "unprepared for being Prime Minister" while Gilani had "a history of corruption charges." She wrote that Qureshi was "very ambitious" "self-promoting" and "too independent for Zardari's taste" while Mirani "at age 70" was "pliant", and Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar was "a dependable crony".

Despite Musharraf's aides backing Fahim, Zardari seemed disinclined to approve him as the PPP's nominee even though he allowed speculation to continue. In private conversations, he was highly critical of Fahim.

Patterson wrote in a cable that Zardari had noted during a meeting that "Fahim has never done a day's work in his life" and that "he had been in Dubai five times since Benazir's death for rest and recreation".

Bhutto was fond of Fahim and he was loyal but he was "incompetent", Zardari told the US envoy. After Zardari told Fahim he was no longer a contender for the post of premier on March 6, 2008, Fahim sought a meeting with Patterson to "inform" her of the news.

In the meeting held on March 7, "Fahim indicated he considered Zardari a bit of an upstart and an outsider," Patterson wrote in another cable. Fahim also told the envoy "that he would resign from the party and go off 'on my own.'"

In a meeting with Patterson on March 10, 2008, detailed in another cable, Zardari laughed off the prospect of Fahim splitting from the PPP. "Zardari said Fahim would only take two deputies with him if he split from the party," she wrote.

Zardari also told Patterson that he did not trust Fahim. Zardari also noted that senior PPP leader Aitzaz Ahsan was "campaigning for President" and "said he would not welcome Aitzaz back into the PPP fold."

Zardari further told the US envoy that "he needed someone from the Punjab as PM, since that populous province was the backbone of the party's future". Zardari noted that "he had floated Ahmed Mukhtar's name as a possible candidate. But Mukhtar had not done well in the subsequent glare of international publicity." Even before the candidate for premiership was announced about two weeks later, Zardari told Patterson on March 10, 2008 that Gilani was his choice.