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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

He spent 11 years in jail on murder, drug-smuggling, and corruption charges, but was never convicted; in 2008, a Swiss court terminated an investigation into alleged money-laundering of $60 million. Shortly before his accession to the presidency, British court documents came to light containing reports that Zardari had been diagnosed with mental illnesses and suicidal tendencies. The reports were submitted as part of Zardari's efforts to plead ill-health in ongoing corruption cases.

Misstep in dealing with judges

A source close to the president privately acknowledged to the Monitor that two decisions in particular over the past year had proved disastrous to his image: the government's delay in restoring some of the judges – sacked by General Musharraf – to office in March, including popular Chief Justice Ithikar Chaudhry; and the imposition of a month-long emergency rule in the country's powerful Punjab Province, designed to undermine the opposition.

In July, an Interior Ministry announcement that anyone mocking the president in text messages, e-mail, or blogs risks being arrested and given a 14-year prison sentence under a new Cyber Crimes Act was met with more ridicule, as even Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and other senior members of the PPP moved to distance themselves from it.

The lively Pakistani media has generally been very vocal in its opposition to Zardari, leading some in the president's inner circle to suggest it is the work of an opposition-backed smear campaign to remove him from office.

Raising the prospect of a fresh political crisis, the PML-N last week threatened to take to the streets if its demands of placing Musharraf on trial and undoing changes he made to the Constitution were not met. The threats were averted, for the time being, following a conciliatory speech by Sharif.

Presidential spokeswoman Farahnaz Ispahani denies that the president's authority has been weakened, and points to Pakistan's securing nonmilitary aid and an International Monetary Fund loan as signs of success.

"Domestically and internationally, key decisionmakers who understand Zardari's vital role in making the war acceptable to the people of Pakistan," she says.

Taliban are not winning hearts and minds, either

Cyril Almeida, a columnist with the leading English daily Dawn, notes that the opposition do not have the requisite majority in parliament to impeach Zardari, nor, for the moment, is the military inclined to step back into the fray – a move that would require the tacit understanding of the United States.

Instead, he says, "perhaps the greatest danger to Zardari is Zardari.

"He's never been in serious politics before – there was Benazir, who was front and center," he continues. "In terms of how to run a political party in this country – he's good at maneuvering people and keeping allies happy. But when it comes to connecting to voters, does he understand that process? Does he have some kind of vision?"

Mr. Almeida says that Zardari's weaknesses as a leader and administrator are partly to blame for the country's ongoing economic and power crises. When it comes to winning hearts and minds against militancy, however, the Taliban are creating their own problems.

"I don't think the battle [for hearts and minds] can be won by the personal charisma of leaders," he says. "It's more a question of the militants contributing to their own downfall, by flogging women, by suicide bomb attacks, and so on. That's what really coalesces people against them."

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