Will slow response to Pakistan flood threaten democracy?

The absence of politicians from the scene of the Pakistan flood -- the country's worst in 80 years -- is raising concerns about the future of democracy in Pakistan.

By , Correspondent

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    Flood affected children help a woman to get water in a camp in Nowshera, Pakistan on Thursday. Pakistani flood survivors already short on food and water began the fasting month of Ramadan on Thursday, a normally festive, social time marked this year by misery and fears of an uncertain future.
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At the town’s main shelter, housed in the Muzzafargarh Welfare School in southern Punjab, women driven from their homes by the Pakistan flood line up for medicine for their children and plead for food. While doctors dispense treatment, a steady stream of clients is generated by poor sanitation in the latrines at the camp. Flies and mosquitoes buzz around the toilet and kitchen areas as men, women, and children share living space on the floors.

“Our requests for cleaning up the latrines and the floors are going ignored,” complains shopkeeper Mazhar Ahmad.

Anger is spreading throughout this flooded region at the local politicians who have been missing from a scene in which Pakistan's Red Crescent, Red Cross branches and even the US Marines have been providing aid. The feeling of abandonment by local politicians is common among Pakistan's poorest, and raises questions about future support democracy in Pakistan. Militant groups who have challenged central government authority have been quick to jump in with promises of aid.

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In a sign of the mounting anger Hina Rabbani Khar, a parliamentarian and junior minister from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, was pelted with stones by protesters on Aug. 8 after arriving at her constituency in Punjab one week after the flooding had begun.

Too little, too late?

On Thursday, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who has been harshly criticized for not canceling a trip to France and Britain during the flooding, made his first visit to the flood affected areas. The president visited his home province of Sindh and was shown on state television patting the head of an elderly woman before inspecting a flood barrier.

"The president has always been concerned with the welfare of Pakistan's people, notwithstanding the venomous propaganda of his opponents. He has been involved in directing and coordinating resource mobilization for flood relief internationally. His visit to flood affected areas should effectively shut up those who would rather play politics than focus on helping those uprooted by raging waters," wrote the president's spokesperson Farahnaz Ispanahi in an e-mail to the Monitor.

The perception war

But stepping in to fill a perceived void have been groups such as the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, allegedly a front organization for banned militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is believed to have been behind the Mumbai attacks in 2008, as well as the Al Khidmet foundation, the charitable wing of Pakistan’s hardline Jamaat-e-Islami.

At a medical camp on Muzaffargarh’s main road, Ghulam Mustafa, chief of the Falah-e-Insaniat medical team, sits with several helpers and dispenses drugs. In between prescribing diarrhea medication to a small infant who has been brought along by his mother, Dr. Mustafa explains: “Only we and the Jamaat-e-Islami have camps in the villages and far flung areas. It is our Islamic duty” to help, he said. In a text message to the Monitor, the Al Khidmet foundation makes similar boasts about its efforts in Layyah, Sindh. “In one area we have 10 boats busy rescuing those affected. Here there are no Army or civilian government representatives.”

Muzaffargarh's District Coordination Officer Farasat Iqbal, its chief official, recognizes the government’s limitations and praises the Falah-e-Insaniat foundation, with whom he says his office is “coordinating efforts.”

Though the Army has fixed a number of barriers that protect the city, the town is not yet out of danger from secondary flash floods. “The next 24 hours are a crucial period. There is a danger that our operation base – the main town center – could be gone,” he says.

The private aid efforts are part of the Pakistani Islamist group's long-term strategy to expand their voter base in constituencies ruled by Pakistan's feudal elite, according to Rasule Baksh Raes, a political analyst at the Lahore University for Management Sciences.

“They find such opportunities to establish networks and establish reputations as good people. Religious groups today come from within the people and think more of what the people need than the traditional dynastic or feudal families, whom you hear (are) looting the country and moving out,” he says.

The perceived failure of public officials ultimately weakens Pakistan's civilian institutions, especially when contrasted with the high-profile efforts of the Army, says Dr. Raes.

“The Army isn’t acting with some political objective in mind. But if you look at the character and level of integrity of the political class it seems they don’t belong to Pakistan,” he says, adding that through their perceived corruption and negligence, politicians are cutting away at the future of democracy here.

Democracy isn't in danger

At a foreign office briefing on Friday, however, spokesman Abdul Basit rebutted these types of arguments.

“The claims made by American newspapers are baseless…democracy in Pakistan is not endangered by the floods…democracy and the government are getting stronger and soon the flood challenge will be under control,” he said.

Still, concerns also remain over whether the Pakistani Taliban will attempt to use the situation to their advantage. Last week the Taliban claimed credit for the killing of Siftwar Ghayur, the Chief of Pakistan's Frontier constabulary, which has been involved in frontline operations against the Taliban.

The United States has pledged $71 million in emergency assistance to the Pakistan, and Thursday a shipload of Marines and US helicopters arrived to help, amid more calls from the Pakistan government for assistance.

Also on Friday, Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq denounced foreign aid, "We condemn American and other foreign aid and believe that it will lead to subjugation," he told AFP.

"The government should not accept American aid and, if it happens, we can give $20 million to them as aid for the flood victims," he continued offering to distribute relief, instead of the US in exchange for a promise not to be arrested.

On Wednesday, United Nations humanitarian chief John Holmes launched an appeal for $459 million to provide immediate help to millions of flood victims. The disaster has claimed some 1,600 lives and affected up to 14 million people.

Though rescue efforts are still underway, Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan's Herald magazine, says that as the rain eases up nationwide in the coming days, attention will shift to economic rehabilitation.

"People have lost their livelihoods for the next year or two unless they get aid to rebuild their farms and businesses. The rescue will soon be over but we now need a comprehensive plan for rehabilitation and relief," he says.

Just who will provide that plan remains to be seen.

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