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PAKISTAN: Zardari's Katrina

August 9, 2010 |  7:44 am

The Pakistani media are calling it "Zardari's Katrina."

President Asif Ali Zardari has become the lightning rod for the Pakistani public's fury with the government's handling of catastrophic floods that so far have killed 1,500 people across Pakistan, left hundreds of thousands homeless and ravaged an already fragile economy. Pakistanis from the Swat Valley in the north to submerged villages along the Indus River in southern Pakistan have criticized the government's relief efforts as slow and disorganized.

As the country's chief executive, Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani has the responsibility of overseeing rescue and relief efforts. But it's Zardari who has been singled out as the poster child for flood relief mismanagement. The reason? As floodwaters were washing away whole villages and obliterating roads, bridges, hospitals and schools in northwest Pakistan, Zardari went ahead with a planned trip to Europe, where he met with French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Paris and later headed to London to patch up relations with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had recently enraged Pakistanis by accusing them of not doing enough in the fight against terrorism.

Pakistanis thought their president should be home in Pakistan at a time of crisis. Likening the situation to President George W. Bush's troubled management of Hurricane Katrina, newspaper columnists and commentators said Zardari's presence in Pakistan during the floods would have had symbolic value, even if he wasn't expected to provide hands-on stewardship of the crisis.

Criticism is nothing new for Zardari, who has seen his approval ratings plummet since becoming president in 2008. Many Pakistanis view Zardari as corrupt and inefficient, an accidental president who rose to power only because of the 2007 assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as she was readying her political comeback.

However, the extent of anger directed at Zardari may have reached new heights. During a speech in Birmingham, Britain, a heckler threw a shoe at Zardari, which in the Muslim world is a gesture of protest or disrespect. The News, a Pakistani newspaper, quoted Sardar Mohammed Shamin Khan as saying he threw the shoe because "we have a crisis back home and all he can do is take a trip around Europe while his own people are suffering."

Editorials in Pakistani newspapers haven't pulled any punches. The English-language daily Dawn, one of the country's most respected newspapers, said in an editorial Saturday that Zardari "appears to have badly miscalculated the impact this untimely visit will have on his image as Pakistan's head of state. He may have managed to come out of desperate situations before, but this is a tough one."

-- Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad