The circumstances in which Mr Asif Ali Zardari has been elected as the 12th President of Pakistan are truly daunting. The PPP loyalists have depicted him as a person who has been transformed following the tragic assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, on December 27, 2007. They present him as the man of the moment who will not only revive democracy, after nine autocratic years of Pervez Musharraf, but will respond to the unprecedented challenges the country is facing. The country is faced with challenges of traumatic proportions. Some are related to global developments, including a steep rise in energy costs that affected all aspects of life in this industrial era notably transportation, making movement of goods and people more costly. This was accompanied by a global shortfall in the production of food staples, including wheat, rice and cooking oil that combined with poor governance and corruption led to skyrocketing prices and shortages. People expect a popularly elected government to deal not only with this problem but also with shortages of energy, including load-shedding and interrupted gas supplies that the elected government has so far failed to address. The February 18 elections had manifested general rejection of the Musharraf regime that was held responsible both for the economic malaise and the worsening of the law and order situation that further exacerbated the problems of extremism and terrorism. Starting with Musharraf's onslaught on the Supreme Court on March 9, 2007 that led to the launching of the Lawyers' Movement, the country had witnessed the Karachi show of force by MQM on May 12 same year, to prevent the chief justice from addressing the legal fraternity. The towering outrage by Musharraf was the imposition of emergency on November 3 which he had conceded as being a violation of the constitution. He had removed and imprisoned independent-minded members of the top judiciary, and appointed hand-picked judges. It is significant that the PPP and MQM have chosen to recognise the legality of the November 3 decisions. Justice Dogar had administered the presidential oath to Musharraf after conferring the Supreme Court's endorsement, which Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and a majority of the Supreme Court panel would have refused. The position taken by the new president on the matter was made clear by the law minister on the day of the election when Justice Dogar administered the oath to three former Supreme Court Judges. The same chief justice will administer the presidential oath to Mr Zardari. After skilfully persuading Nawaz Sharif to give priority to the impeachment of President Pervez Musharraf, he went back on the commitment to restore the judiciary to the November 2 position, or to select a non-controversial person as president Taking into account the enormous challenges confronting Mr Zardari, well-wishers of Pakistan underline that he needs all the help he can to stop Pakistan's slide to lawlessness, religious extremism and insolvency. Some of these well-wishers say that Mr Zardari has been transformed by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and would redeem himself by serving the country with dignity, honour and integrity. Here one has to take into account different scenarios, already being projected by sceptics and experienced political analysts. The scenario being presented by PPP loyalists and those inspired by wishful thinking is that he will be a leader in the tradition of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto and be a catalyst for ensuring the supremacy of the Parliament, and the fostering of democratic institutions as well as of a just and equitable economic order. In evaluating this scenario, one has to visualise what kind of leader he is likely to be. Clearly, he will not give up the leadership of the Party, and insist upon retaining his position as co-chairman, performing these functions till the chairman named by Benazir, her son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has completed his education and gained the maturity perspective to take command. Something like the Nehru-Indira Gandhi dynastic rule is being visualised. Mr Zardari already has the judiciary in subservience, and the Parliament will also know to him, as Mr Yousuf Reza Gilani's demeanour indicates Mr Zardari is choice of persons like Salman Farooqi and Rehman Malik who had questionable reputations in their earlier tenures as Financial and Police officials has aroused suspicious about his future intentions. Even persons chosen for the top diplomatic positions like Pakistan's to Washington and High Commissioner to London are Party loyalists. It may be recalled that as prime minister in her first term, Benazir had personalised the choice of personnel for government jobs by downgrading the role of the Federal Public Service Commission and establishing the Placement Bureau under her direct control. However, the merit system would be undermined through party and personal patronage. Wholesale "cleansing" campaigns may be launched. As president, Mr Zardari will undoubtedly continue the Bhutto legacy of close relations with China, though he will also seek a good relationship with the US and India. Tackling the threats of extremism and terrorism will be a major challenge and he has already complicated matters by backing self-reliance and negotiations along the Pak-Afghan and opposing a pro-active role by US and NATO forces. One cannot conclude a preview of the outlook for the Zardari presidency without recalling the negative factors he and his supporters must confront. His stand on the judiciary has alienated the Lawyers' Movement, the most potent political force created in the country over the past year. Domestic and foreign observers will watch his performance closely, and any attempt to take on forces of popular opposition, notably in the Punjab will backfire. The potential for discontent on various grounds is enormous. One cynical analyst in the US, who keeps his focus on the region, says that if Mr Zardari confirms the worst fears by failing to tackle the formidable challenges facing him, the return to democracy may be short lived. Once again top generals may intervene and the US would be ready to work with them, both for domestic peace in a critical country, and an effective war against terror. The writer is a former ambassador