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Zardari's popularity sags - will it undermine Pakistan's fight with Taliban?

One year after becoming president, the widower of Benazir Bhutto has been battered by economic crises and political missteps – despite some military successes.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 2009

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (l.) meets with Balochistan Governor Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi at the Presidency in Islamabad on Wednesday.



Islamabad, Pakistan

Recent battlefield successes in Pakistan have done little to bolster the flagging popularity of President Asif Ali Zardari, who, one year into office, faces a trust deficit that may compromise his ability to lead the country's war on militancy.

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A Pew research poll conducted in May found that just 32 percent of the country had a favorable opinion of Mr. Zardari, down from 64 percent shortly after he came to office.

A similar poll by the International Republican Institute the same month found that 72 percent of people disliked him. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the main opposition Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), had a 79 percent favorability rating in the Pew poll.

The Pakistani military wrested the vast majority of the Swat Valley from militant control in late June and provided intelligence used by US forces to kill former Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone attack in August.

But these success stories have not been translated into political capital by the government, according to Rasul Baksh Raees, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

"In many other countries, political parties and leaders would have claimed credit for such a turnaround," he says, noting that the past year has also seen a marked change in public attitudes towards the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The May Pew poll found that 70 percent of Pakistanis view the Taliban unfavorably and 61 percent view Al Qaeda unfavorably, up from just 33 percent and 34 percent, respectively, last year.

Instead, Zardari's failure to "come out of his cocoon" and visit Swat, or to even hold public speeches or press conferences on the issue, have proved politically damaging and allowed Pakistan's all-powerful military, an institution whose reputation took a battering under former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to take full-credit for the operation, says Mr. Raees.

Political blunders, economic crises

The widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007 as she campaigned to return to power, Zardari was elected to a five-year term by parliament in September 2008, following his Pakistan People's Party's (PPP) victory in the general election in February 2008.

Initially welcomed into office in a wave of sympathy, his popularity began to fall away following a series of political blunders, high inflation, a weak economy, and an ongoing energy crisis.

Part of his image problem stems from corruption allegations dating back to the 1990s, when, as a minister in his wife's government, he earned the moniker "Mr. 10 percent" for alleged kickbacks in awarding government contracts.