Zar­dari’s im­age takes an­other hit

Pak­istani pres­i­dent’s trip to Europe dur­ing crises fu­els pub­lic scorn

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - wit­teg@wash­

by Griff Witte

is­lam­abad, pak­istan — A politician with a 20 per­cent ap­proval rat­ing might not ap­pear to have much to lose.

But Pak­istani Pres­i­dent Asif Ali Zar­dari, his stand­ing al­ready seem­ingly at rock bot­tom, elicited a new level of pub­lic scorn this week.

With much of his nation un­der wa­ter af­ter the worst flood­ing to hit Pak­istan in liv­ing me­mory, Zar­dari has been tour­ing Europe. As he­li­copters res­cued stranded res­i­dents from surg­ing rivers, Zar­dari chop­pered to his fam­ily’s chateau in France. Af­ter ri­ots and a sui­cide bomber wreaked fur­ther havoc, Zar­dari dined in the English coun­try­side with Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron.

Zar­dari is a crit­i­cal U.S. ally who came to power two years ago on a wave of pub­lic sym­pa­thy af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of his wife, for­mer prime min­is­ter Be­nazir Bhutto.

Long dogged by cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions, Zar­dari had al­ready been strug­gling with the per­cep­tion that he is out of touch. With Pak­istan’s ag­gres­sive new pri­vate tele­vi­sion chan­nels air­ing splitscree­n shots of Zar­dari’s Euro­pean trav­els on one side and Pak­istani vil­lages be­ing swept away on the other, that view has so­lid­i­fied.

The pres­i­dent’s trip has also come to sym­bol­ize a govern­ment re­sponse to the floods that vic­tims say has been dis­or­ga­nized and slow off the mark. Zar­dari’s crit­ics have com­pared his be­hav­ior since the floods be­gan to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s han­dling of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina.

“It was disgusting to see Zar­dari go­ing on a joy ride when peo­ple here ex­pected the pres­i­dent to stand with the nation at its hour of grief,” said Ah­san Iqbal, a law­maker from the coun­try’s main op­po­si­tion party, which is led by for­mer prime min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif. “That is what peo­ple ex­pect at a min­i­mum from their lead­ers.”

Zar­dari’s back­ers say that the crit­i­cism is po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated and that un­der Pak­istan’s par­lia­men­tary sys­tem, the task of run­ning the govern­ment falls to the prime min­is­ter. In­deed, Par­lia­ment passed a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment this year that makes the pres­i­dent, at least on paper, lit­tle more than a fig­ure­head.

“The whole govern­ment is here. It’s look­ing af­ter the cri­sis,” said Fozia Wa­hab, a spokes­woman for the rul­ing Pak­istan Peo­ple’s Party. “This is just an ex­cuse to ma­lign the pres­i­dent.”

But res­i­dents whose lives have been turned up­side down by the floods say Zar­dari’s pres­ence, if noth­ing else, would have been sym­bol­i­cally im­por­tant.

“Tra­di­tion­ally when there is mourn­ing, the elder is sup­posed to be there to con­sole the peo­ple,” said Mah­mood Riaz, a 35-yearold teacher from Pak­istan’s north­west. “But un­for­tu­nately, our pres­i­dent is busy on his per­sonal world tour.”

New elec­tions are not slated un­til 2013, and for the moment at least, there is lit­tle talk that the govern­ment could fall.

But it is un­doubt­edly un­der great pres­sure as the cost of the floods, in both lives and re­sources, con­tin­ues to rise. Pak­istani of­fi­cials have said the govern­ment is do­ing the best it can to deal with the floods but have ad­mit­ted that it is over­matched by the scale of the de­struc­tion.

Ini­tially con­cen­trated in the bat­tle-scarred north­west, the floods have killed at least 1,500 peo­ple. Govern­ment dis­as­ter of­fi­cials said Fri­day that an ad­di­tional 12 mil­lion had been af­fected, up sharply from pre­vi­ous es­ti­mates.

Heavy rains on Fri­day grounded aid flights and caused even more dev­as­ta­tion, as swollen rivers over­flowed their banks and surged south to­ward cru­cial agri­cul­tural ar­eas.

Even be­fore the scale of the flood dam­age be­came clear, Zar­dari was un­der pres­sure to can­cel his trip. Last week, Cameron in­fu­ri­ated Pak­ista­nis by re­fer­ring, dur­ing an ap­pear­ance in In­dia, to Pak­istan’s “ex­port of ter­ror.” Many in Pak­istan called on Zar­dari to scut­tle his visit to London in protest.

But Zar­dari aides said the pres­i­dent needed to meet with Euro­pean al­lies and would go ahead with the trip as planned.

Zar­dari’s trip has been a mix of state busi­ness and party pol­i­tics. Zar­dari told the As­so­ci­ated Press in London on Fri­day that he’s will­ing to con­sider ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban in Pak­istan — a state­ment that came amid ac­cu­sa­tions that he has failed to do enough to tackle ter­ror­ism. “We never closed the di­a­logue,” Zar­dari told the AP, skirt­ing the ques­tion of when talks could ac­tu­ally re­sume.

His son and party co-chair­man, 21-year-old Bi­lawal Bhutto Zar­dari, has joined him in France and Bri­tain.

The younger Zar­dari, who is seen as be­ing groomed to fol­low his par­ents into pol­i­tics and who re­cently grad­u­ated from Ox­ford, was widely ex­pected to make his de­but with a speech to the Pak­istan Peo­ple’s Party faith­ful at a rally in Birm­ing­ham.

But on Thurs­day, he dis­pelled that no­tion with a state­ment sug­gest­ing that he rec­og­nized the pit­falls of giv­ing a po­lit­i­cal speech from abroad at a time of tragedy at home.

“In fact I will not even be at­tend­ing the event,” the state­ment said, “and in­stead I will be open­ing a do­na­tion point at the Pak­istan High Com­mis­sion in London for vic­tims of the ter­ri­ble floods.” Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Haq Nawaz Khan con­trib­uted to this re­port from Peshawar.


With help from a Pak­istani navy crew­man, left, vil­lagers trans­port an el­derly man from a flooded area in Sindh prov­ince.

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