Pakistani leader attempts damage control after European trip during disaster

Damage control for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is in full swing following his much-criticized trip to Europe.

In recent days, state broadcasts have shown Zardari embracing a Pakistani woman in tears at a relief camp in the flood-ravaged southern city of Sukkur, handing out relief packages to flood victims in Nowshera, then accompanying U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on a helicopter ride to survey submerged farmland in southern Punjab province.

The itinerary, experts say, is meant to erase a different image for Pakistanis: one of a helicopter dropping off Zardari at the sumptuous 16th century chateau he owns in the French countryside, while back home floodwaters this month were upending millions of lives and plunging Pakistan into its worst crisis in its 63-year history.

The president’s visit to Britain and France earlier this month during the country’s hour of crisis — the disaster has killed more than 1,600 people, damaged or destroyed more than 895,000 houses and left many Pakistanis in need of shelter, drinking water and emergency healthcare — has mainly worsened the president’s already suffering image at home, some experts say.

Although Zardari met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris and British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, the decision to go to Europe was “sheer arrogance,” said political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais. “He has made many blunders, but I don’t think there’s a greater blunder than making this trip.”

But experts also said Zardari, a leader the U.S. regards as one of its key allies in the fight against Islamic militancy, probably won’t see any serious threat to his presidency. His term isn’t up until 2013, and opposition parties do not have the votes in parliament to remove him. If Zardari harbors notions of staying in power after 2013, experts said, then those prospects have probably dimmed.

“It has damaged him politically, in the sense that it has refocused attention on his inadequacies,” said Ayaz Amir, a Pakistani columnist and lawmaker from the opposition PML-N party. “There is renewed talk along the lines of, ‘Look here, what kind of president do we have?’ ”

Zardari’s approval ratings have fallen steadily since he became president in 2008. Many Pakistanis still call him “Mr. 10%,” a reference to corruption allegations and the alleged demands for kickbacks that have dogged him since stints in previous decades as a Cabinet minister.

Zardari aides said that among other things, the trip allowed him to patch up ties with Cameron, who had said during a recent visit to India that Pakistan should not “look both ways” in dealing with the West and the Taliban, and seemingly suggested Pakistan was not doing enough to fight terrorism.

In France, Zardari made a two-hour stopover at a chateau in Normandy that his family has owned for 24 years. Zardari’s 21-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, joined him during the visits to France and Britain, and was slated to make his political debut with a speech in Birmingham to followers of Pakistan’s ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party. Zardari heads the party and his son is co-chairman. Bilawal Zardari later canceled the speech, saying such an event would not be proper while the nation was grappling with deadly floods.

Zardari’s aides say the president knew his decision to make the trip would be unpopular but that the meetings with Sarkozy, aimed at obtaining additional flood relief, and Cameron were too important to shelve.

“Looking back, the president believes it was the right decision,” said Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar. “Of course, from the point of view of getting political mileage, and to get good headlines in the next day’s newspapers, it would have been good if he called off the visit. But he had to make a choice — whether he wants to have good, favorable headlines for [the] next three [or] four days, or whether he should keep in mind the long-term interests of Pakistan.”

For many Pakistanis, Zardari is seen as an accidental leader who fell into the job after the death of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007 as she was attempting a political comeback. Zardari became leader of the PPP, and in September 2008 he was elected by Pakistan’s parliament and four provincial assemblies to a five-year term.

Since then, he has been criticized as not doing enough to put the country’s moribund economy on the right track, and he has failed to tackle the daily power shutdowns that continue to beset the country.

With his approval ratings in a tailspin, Zardari yielded to widespread calls for a constitutional amendment that largely reduced the presidency to a figurehead role and shifted much of his powers to Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani.

Zardari’s aides have said the president’s new role does not entail hands-on stewardship of a crisis like the flood disaster — that the job belongs to Gilani. However, at a time when collective anger was welling up in Pakistan over what is perceived as the government’s slow, disorganized response to the floods, Zardari’s trip to Europe made things worse.

Amir called the Zardari administration’s rationale for the trip “absurd.”

“When a disaster like this hits, you don’t have to go on a junket to get international support,” Amir said. “The most effective thing to do is to remain at home and impress upon the world the magnitude of the disaster. Their explanation convinces no one. No one is buying it here in Pakistan.”