Pakistan’s Floods and Mr Zardari’s Leadership Dilemmas

Floods in Pakistan are producing one of the major humanitarian crises since its formation. The President on an overseas trip has come under intense criticism from the country’s media

President Zardari appears to be severe political pressure [August 2010]. As a young man in his early 30s, he married Benazir Bhutto in 1987, who became Prime Minister of Pakistan shortly afterwards. Zardari was appointed a member of the National Assembly, later serving as investment and environment minister. However, he quickly became a politician who repeatedly faced personal setbacks.

Mr 10%

Zardari’s opponents later began using the controversial nickname, “Mr 10%“, referring to the charges of corruption levelled against him. According to a BBC profile,

After a change of Government he was imprisoned on charges of corruption and murder (charges of which he was later cleared). He spent two separate terms in prison totalling eleven and a half years. At his swearing-in ceremony, Mr Zardari said he was accepting the post of president in the name of his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto. Mr Zardari had long lived in the shadow of his late charismatic wife, who was twice Pakistan’s prime minister and head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – a position Mr Zardari inherited upon her death in December 2007.

The Current Controversy

The BBC picked up the story again recently:

The Pakistani media’s criticism of President Asif Ali Zardari over his visit to the United Kingdom has been unprecedented. Newspapers and television news have criticised him for being absent when Pakistan was struck by the worst floods in living memory. The absent president has been criticised by the international media for his apparent indifference. But in Pakistan, the media’s scorn has a deeper meaning and motive. It hints at tensions between the country’s civilian democracy and the powerful military establishment. The current anti-Zardari campaign in the media started before the floods hit the headlines. The criticism began after British Prime Minister David Cameron made remarks in India on 28 July [accusing] some in Pakistan of “looking both ways”, exporting terror to neighbouring countries.

A Leadership Dilemma

Political leaders accept repeated attacks from their political opponents. They have to judge the impact of any of their actions in terms of consequential damage to their position both at home and internationally. From countless examples in history, leaders are reluctant to be absent from the epicentre of events. So why did Mr Zardari not curtail his period overseas as the domestic crisis deepened?

BBC’s Ilyas Khan offered various possibilities. The actions of Mr Zardari suggest the trip was in part to achieve dynasty-building, advancing the political career of his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Furthermore, to cancel the trip had its own undesirable consequences. He risked being portrayed as vacillating, and perhaps also being seen as fearful of the power of his adversaries in Pakistan’s military establishment. In short, Zardari faced a leadership dilemma. To proceed according to intentions after the scale of the humanitarian crisis in his country became clear. Or to return earlier than planned, which would protect him from accusations of insensitivity but expose him to charges that he was a weak leader engaging in gesture politics.

A Tipping Point?

In analysing business events past or present, it is simplistic to assume there are simple explanatory cause-effect chains at play. Leadership research has increasingly examined critical incidents in terms of sense-making. Any action can be mapped on to a prior belief system. Rather, it helped those opposed to him to confirm their view that he was acting according to their beliefs.

Students of leadership might consider whether the recent actions of the President will become regarded as a tipping-point which change the political fortunes of Mr Zardari. Or whether they were no more than a convenient way for his opponents to explain their actions in seeking to displace him.

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