By Griff Witte
Saturday, August 7, 2010; A07
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.
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.