Those who hold power and shape the destiny of others should never be judged in a moment of misfortune or defeat. If seen as a corpse hung by the feet, even Mussolini could arouse some pity. They must be judged when they are alive and in power. Sometimes, once in a long while, you get a chance to serve your country. Few people had been offered the opportunity that lay open to President Asif Zardari. He blew it. He has been in power for four long years and must be held to account now. This strikes me as a good time to assess his performance.

Fragile countries, like Pakistan, can ill afford the loss of the best and the brightest of their leaders. I have been frightened for my country only a few times in my life: in 1948 when Mr Jinnah died. I never saw so many people crying, so visibly shaken by sadness. In 1971, it was the secession of East Pakistan. And horror of horrors, December 27, 2007, when Benazir was assassinated, and a year later, Zardari was elected as the President of Pakistan. This last moment was the scariest of all. The tragic assassination of Benazir, a stain on the nation’s conscience, still haunts the people. Tragically, her death is fast becoming a non-event. It seems no one is interested in unravelling the mystery surrounding her assassination or unmasking the perpetrator of this dastardly crime.

With the passing away of Benazir, either by luck, design, happenstance, divine grace or intervention, the nation’s constitutional process produced an unexpected, ill-equipped, least qualified, corrupt President, who seeks in vain to fill the gaping void left behind by Benazir’s tragic death.

To no nation has fate been more malignant than to Pakistan. With few exceptions, Pakistan has long been saddled with poor, even malevolent, leadership: predatory kleptocrats, military dictators, political illiterates and carpetbaggers. With all her failings, Benazir had undoubted leadership qualities - charisma, courage, political acumen and articulation. After her tragic assassination, Mr Zardari’s sudden ascension to the presidency and party leadership caused panic among the people. Many hoped that Zardari, once elected to the highest office, would have a sense of his own smallness in the sweep of events and would contravene Lord Acton’s dictum and grow humbler and wiser. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

All Presidents fall from their honeymoon highs, but no elected President in history has fallen this far, this fast. All Presidents are opposed, of course, and many are disliked; but few suffer widespread attacks on their personal integrity or veracity. President Zardari is one of those few. At the heart of leadership is the leader’s character. He must always walk on a straight line. Honour and probity must be his polar star. People will entrust their hopes and dreams to another person only if they believe him, if they think he is a reliable vessel. His character - demonstrated through deeds more than words - is at the heart of it. Zardari has failed all these character tests.

How would the first draft of history assess Mr Zardari’s performance in office? Zardari year one began with panic among the people. At the end of year four, the nation is pursued and haunted by a profound, unrelenting fear of anarchy. There is an element of dread in the air. The public mood remains sour. Anxiety abounds. Anxiety is not personal. It is about the future of Pakistan. Pessimism is the flower of the year in Pakistan. Precious few people are daring to voice optimism about the outlook over the next six months. The streets of Pakistan throb with fear, tension and agitation. The country is in an apocalyptic mood.

The presidency is a bacterium. It finds the open wounds in the people who hold it. It infects them. The resulting scandals infect the presidency and the country. The person with the fewest wounds generally does best in the presidency and is best for the country. Zardari entered the presidency with festering sores and slender qualifications. In a President, character matters more than anything else. He has his character forged before he enters the presidency. He cannot acquire it in the presidency.

A President doesn’t have to be a Harvard graduate. He doesn’t have to be a man of great ability. But he must have integrity and credibility in order to succeed. Zardari lacks both. He also faces grave charges of corruption at home and abroad. Without the cover of Article 248, he would be in serious trouble today. How can he govern? How can he inspire his people? How can he provide leadership? A Japanese Prime Minister in similar circumstances would have resigned and committed hara-kiri long ago.

The presidency is more than an honour; it is more than an office. It is a charge to keep. Zardari, known for his political astuteness, is a ruthless practitioner of Machiavellian statecraft and evokes memories of the Florentine statesman Machiavelli never advised the ‘Prince’ to loot and plunder his country. Thrown there by accident, Zardari is grotesquely unsuited for his new position in this day and age. He has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. With Zardari in the presidency, one doesn’t have to read the tea leaves for a glimpse of our future. I fear for thee, my country!

Zardari’s presidency will go down in history as a case study in the bankruptcy of leadership. He has eroded people’s faith in themselves as citizens of a sovereign, independent, democratic country. The result is the mess we are in today. The country appears to be adrift, lacking confidence about its future. Never before has public confidence in the country’s future sunk so low.

These are critical days in Pakistan. There is no steady hand on the tiller of government. The survival of the country, its sovereignty, its stunted democracy, its hard-won independent judiciary, all are on the line. The country is gripped by fear and uncertainty and is as near to anarchy as society can approach without dissolution.

The economic performance of the Zardari government during the last four years has been dismal. The budget deficit, the balance of trade, and the inflation rate, are cause for serious concern. Yet as Macbeth remarks after seeing the witches, “present fears are less than horrible imaginings.” Poverty has deepened. While life at the top gets cushier, millions of educated unemployed, the flower of our nation, and those at the bottom of the social ladder, are fleeing the country and desperately trying to escape to the false paradises of the Middle East and the West.

The simple story of Pakistan is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the super rich are extravagant, dolce vita spendthrift, their loyalty is to their pockets, not to the state, the poor, who already live on the precipice, are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out. Countries around the world provide frightening examples of what happens to societies when they reach the level of inequality toward which we are fast moving. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s fraudulent democracy putters along the youth are tired of aging, sclerotic, corrupt leaders, who protect their interests at the expense of the rest of society. Change is in the air.

Election under Zardari is not the answer to our problems. It will be neither free, nor fair, nor impartial. That is for sure! The result will be a foregone conclusion. Anybody, who thinks election under Zardari will be free, fair or impartial, must have his head examined.

It is now abundantly clear that Zardari is not worthy of the trust placed in him by the people of Pakistan. He carries a serious baggage. Dogged for years by charges of corruption until they were abruptly dropped under NRO, to the anger and shock of the people of Pakistan. With the demise of NRO, all the corruption cases pending against him at home and abroad have resurfaced. No wonder, Zardari is moving heaven and earth to obstruct implementation of the apex court directives.

Our country is in deep, deep trouble. The people must understand the full extent of the danger, which threatens the country. Farewell our dreams, our sublime illusions, our hopes, our independence and our sovereignty. Today, the survival of the country, its hard-won democracy, its independent judiciary, its liberties all are on the line. No one is safe, and, perhaps, no place on earth more closely resembles Hobbes’s description of the state of nature in which life is “nasty, brutish and short.”

Our cupboard is bare. The only antidote to this debilitating situation is to throw out this corrupt government and give the people a chance to elect their representatives in an environment free from corruption, fear, coercion or intimidation. Everybody knows this is the only effective answer. The wrong answer is to allow this corrupt government to go on plunging towards the abyss.

The writer is a retired civil servant and senior political analyst. Email: roedad@comsats.net.pk Website: www.roedadkhan.com