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Bunker President emerges fighting

ISLAMABAD, Feb 5 – Months out of the public eye earned him the nickname "Bunker President," but Pakistan\’s Asif Ali Zardari has made a lively comeback, desperate to drum up support as challenges mount, analysts say.

Zardari "is fighting for his political survival," international relations professor Mutahir Sheikh told AFP, as ministers face corruption cases, Islamist unrest grips the nation, and relations with the powerful military falter.

Sporting a towering white turban and vigorously pumping his arms behind a plate of bullet-proof glass, Zardari in January toured Punjab province addressing members of his Pakistan People\’s Party (PPP) with rousing speeches.

Punctuated with frequent cries of "Long Live Pakistan!" his tour made television news nearly every day — in contrast with the first year of his presidency when public engagements were a rare and sombre affair.

But analysts warn his rabble-rousing could backfire.

"Zardari is doing local and provincial politics instead of behaving like the nation\’s president," said retired general and political analyst Talat Masood, accusing the president of misreading the public mood.

"He is trying to deflect attention from the problems being faced by the people who want leaders to deliver…. The country is facing a plethora of problems, internal and external, as well as pressure from the Taliban."

Zardari\’s approval ratings have steadily declined since the PPP won elections in February 2008 on a wave of support after the assassination less than two months earlier of his wife, two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

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Inflation, a crippling power shortage and other economic woes are pressuring everyone from the poorest slum-dwellers to wealthy landowners, while Islamist violence has killed more than 2,900 people since July 2007.

Tensions have simmered between Zardari and the army for months, notably over a US aid package, which has raised jitters in a nation that only emerged from a long spell of military rule two years ago.

Then, on December 16, the Supreme Court overturned a decree shielding government figures including Zardari from prosecution, with courts reopening corruption cases against hundreds of people including ministers.

"Zardari wants to show he can fight," said Hasan Askari, a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University.

"He wants to tell the military and the judiciary he will contest any effort to oust him. But challenges are there and he will remain under pressure."

Zardari is immune from prosecution while in office, but his immunity and his eligibility for the presidency can be challenged.

After the Supreme Court verdict, experts predicted that such a challenge could happen within days, but so far there has been little movement, while opposition party the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) also remain muted.

Askari said Zardari\’s opponents may just be biding their time to see how he weathers the political storm created by the Supreme Court ruling.

Zardari has seized this window to launch his comeback after largely confining himself to his presidential palace amid security fears after the death of his wife, only venturing out for frequent foreign trips.

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In PML-N stronghold Punjab, the largest and most populous province and the political heartland of Pakistan, he donned local dress complete with the traditional "pug" or turban which is a symbol of Punjabi dignity.

He had already appeared in southwest Baluchistan province and central Sindh, Bhutto\’s home province and a PPP heartland, although audiences have been hand-picked party workers gathered under extremely tight security.

"Zardari, who already has Sindh in his hand, is trying to consolidate his party in Punjab because it is a politically important province," said Sheikh, head of international relations at Karachi University.

Analysts are divided over Zardari\’s future. Sheikh believes the recent publicity blast has had some impact and weakened the opposition, but others say Zardari has too many enemies and his time in power is running out.

"I doubt he can survive. He is overwhelmed with problems," said Masood.

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