Asif Ali Zardari waves to his supporters in Islamabad
Smoking an electronic cigarette and casually stooping to feed his cat, President Asif Ali Zardari cut a relaxed figure in a television interview broadcast Sunday. Later, he strolled from the presidential palace while flanked by soldiers in gleaming uniforms, in a mark of honor for his last day at work.
For the departing president, whose many critics had anticipated other endings, those seemingly banal images represented a quiet victory.
Over his five years in power, Zardari fended off threat after threat. Senior judges sought to unseat him through corruption prosecutions. Generals murmured to diplomats about the possibility of a coup. The Taliban vowed to kill him. And large portions of the Pakistani news media and public seemed to revel in ridiculing or condemning him.
He leaves with the Pakistani economy in shambles, and with the once-mighty political machine he still leads, the Pakistan People's Party, in disarray after a crushing election defeat.
Yet for all that, Zardari, 58, has also confounded expectations. He bolstered Pakistan's democracy by draining his own office of power. He became the country's first elected president to complete his term of office. He shifted the tone of politics, eschewing bare-knuckles confrontation for a more accommodating approach.
And, perhaps thanks to the instincts that were honed during his 11 years in prison before becoming president, he displayed political wiles that enabled him to outmaneuver the steeliest rivals, and simply survive.
"Love him or hate him, one can never underestimate President Zardari," wrote Kamal Siddiqi, editor of the daily newspaper The Express Tribune.
Zardari's departure from office comes at the midpoint of a broader changing of the guard this year in the top echelons of Pakistan's turbulent power structures. In June, his longtime political rival, Nawaz Sharif, became prime minister after a sweeping election victory. In November, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is due to step down; weeks later, the formidable chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, is to be replaced.
"This is an era of great change," said Adil Najam, a professor of international relations at Boston University. "Zardari's achievement is to walk away from high power with a smile on his face - not going out in a coffin, or in handcuffs, or in disgrace."
For long, though, he struggled to achieve political legitimacy.
Catapulted into office in 2008 by the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, Zardari arrived already burdened by a reputation for graft. Not only did the military dislike him, but he was also viewed with suspicion by many supporters of his own party as the accidental inheritor of a storied political dynasty.
After early efforts to assert his authority in the face of the military abjectly failed, he largely receded from public view. Much of that was due to security concerns, as a fierce Taliban bombing offensive struck major cities, killing thousands. He often remained cloistered in the Islamabad presidency, worried about his security, occasionally darting to the airport for state trips abroad, or to his second home in Dubai.
He displayed a leaden sensibility toward public opinion - for instance, continuing a vacation at his parent's castle in France in August 2010 as huge floods inundated the country and drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Those mistakes were seized up by the increasingly influential electronic media, which treated Zardari with hostility and, for a time, regularly predicted his downfall. He was openly mocked, and his personal life attacked with insinuations.
Many Pakistanis still believe that Zardari engineered his own wife's death as part of a macabre power grab.
Yet Zardari often turned the other cheek, keeping up a Cheshire cat grin while he pursued a calculated and patient approach as his opponents overstepped themselves.
In 2012, he slogged through a protracted court battle with Chaudhry, who pushed to reopen a corruption case against Zardari that dated to the 1990s. Zardari and his lawyers fought back adroitly, eventually sidestepping the charges. But in the process, he had to sacrifice his chosen prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, who was forced to resign by court order in June 2012.
Often as not, brinkmanship and back-room deals were Zardari's style. Yet along the way, he also introduced key constitutional changes that anchored the country's fragile democratic foundations. He surrendered the main power of his own office - the ability to dismiss Parliament - and turned it into a ceremonial position.
That he got so far could be seen as a minor miracle. During a political crisis in 2009, Kayani discussed the possibility of a military takeover, according to U.S. diplomatic cables later published by WikiLeaks. Around the same time, Zardari told Vice President Joe Biden he worried that Kayani and the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate were plotting to "take me out," according to another leaked cable.
In private meetings, according to a confidant who met with him regularly, Zardari regularly indicated that he believed his conversations were being monitored, and would tap two fingers on his shoulder to indicate he was talking about the military.
The confidant spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
But the Pakistan military's prestige has also suffered blows in recent years, particularly after the U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. A charged political scandal that blew up months later when Zardari faced accusations of secretly siding with the United States amid fears of a military coup.
But the drama later fizzled, suggesting new limits to military meddling in politics.
If his constant maneuvering succeeded in yielding Zardari political and judicial victories, however, it failed to address some of Pakistan's most profound troubles.
The economy has nose-dived and foreign exchange reserves have shrunk in recent years, leading the International Monetary Fund to approve a $6.6 billion emergency loan Sept. 4 - on top of $5 billion that Pakistan already owes the international body. Further harming the economy, systemic power shortages reached crisis proportions this summer, with even major cities experiencing long hours of electricity rationing. Only 1 percent of Pakistanis pay income tax.
Zardari habitually chose ministers on the basis of loyalty rather than ability. And although he frequently railed against the menace posed by Islamist militants, his government failed to stem the tide of Taliban violence.
Indeed, his party kowtowed to the religious right, particularly in the poisonous debate over Pakistan's blasphemy laws. And attempts to broker peace in western Baluchistan province, where a bitter nationalist insurgency has been raging, failed badly.
In recent months, however, as it became clear he would see out the end of his term, some of the public venom toward Zardari appeared to have dissipated.
"There is a sense that political normalcy is starting to set in," said Najam, while cautioning that it was too early to say if civilian supremacy would last. "We've been here before, in the 1990s," he said. "And then things bounce back."
On Monday, the new president, Mamnoon Hussain of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, is due to be sworn in.
Zardari, meanwhile, may still have to fend off threats from his old rival, Chaudhry.
Some speculate that the courts could renew their judicial offensives against Zardari once he loses the shield of presidential immunity. Already his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, is under house arrest, facing criminal charges in five cases.
Zardari says his priority is to rebuild the Pakistan People's Party, which suffered a painful drubbing in the May elections.
He must unite disgruntled factions and, eventually, settle the matter of succession - whether the Bhutto mantle will fall to his son, Bilawal, or to his daughter, Aseefa, whom some analysts see as emerging in a more prominent role.
Of the failures attributed to Zardari, perhaps the most striking concerns the event that propelled him to power.
Six years after his wife was killed in a gun and bomb attack, the identity of the forces behind the assassination remains a mystery. Some Bhutto supporters believe the military played a role; the matter is still in court.
But the fact that Zardari failed to unearth the truth offers another telling indicator of the limits of civilian authority in Pakistan's fluctuating power equation.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service