Pakistani President Zardari's trip to Europe during flood crisis fuels contempt

With help from a Pakistani navy crewman, left, villagers transport an elderly man from a flooded area in Sindh province.
With help from a Pakistani navy crewman, left, villagers transport an elderly man from a flooded area in Sindh province. (Shakil Adil/associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Saturday, August 7, 2010

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 split-screen 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-year-old 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.

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