ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - President Asif Ali Zardari, under fire for going ahead with overseas state visits while many parts of Pakistan drown in floods, has struggled to improve his reputation throughout his controversial time in the public eye.
Pakistanis lost even more faith in the Zardari since the biggest floods in 80 years began raging just over a week ago, devastating millions of lives, killing over 1,500 people and leading to what will likely be an economic catastrophe.
Zardari seemed more interested in diplomacy abroad than dealing with a major natural disaster, raising new questions over his leadership and judgement in a nuclear-armed U.S. ally seen as vital to helping stabilise Afghanistan.
His record on issues critical to his country’s security and economic health have also failed to impress Pakistanis used to turning to the powerful army, not civilian governments perceived as corrupt and inept, in times of trouble.
Taliban insurgents are still a big threat despite crackdowns, keeping away foreign investors. Chronic power cuts have crippled key industries and triggered street protests.
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Zardari has spent a considerable amount of time trying to survive Pakistan’s ruthless and murky politics. He committed the cardinal sin for Pakistani leaders — failing to smooth over differences with the all-powerful military.
Only one in five Pakistanis view Zardari favourably while the country’s army chief gets a more positive rating, according to a new opinion poll released in July.
The U.S.-based Pew Research Center said of about 2,000 adults interviewed in Pakistan in April, only 20 percent saw Zardari positively, down from 64 percent in a poll two years ago.
Still, Zardari, who was married to late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has thick political skin despite shortcomings and corruption charges often highlighted in Pakistani media.
While the immensely more charismatic Bhutto was in power, he earned the nickname “Mr. Ten Percent” based on allegations he demanded kickbacks on state contracts.
Zardari also faced murder charges. He was never convicted and denied wrongdoing on all charges but spent 11 years in jail.
He was born to a land-owning family in the southern province of Sindh, which is bracing for floodwaters that devastated other provinces in Pakistan.
He became president in September 2008 after his party won parliamentary elections in February that year on a wave of sympathy generated by Bhutto’s assassination.
When Zardari is in political danger, he knows when to retreat. Much of his powers have been handed over to the prime minister, but he still wields influence as the ruling party chief.
The biggest challenge of Zardari’s career is likely to come when he returns from Europe, stepping off the presidential plane on shakier political ground than ever: a country ravaged by floods and a population livid at the government’s response.
Editing by Miral Fahmy