Opinion: Pakistan floods reveal crisis in country's leadership

NEW YORK — Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s first trip to a flood-hit part of the country is currently underway, but his trip last week to Europe is still fresh in everyone's minds. Amid the worst flooding disaster his country has ever faced — one that is indeed seeming to get worse instead of better — Zardari's overseas jaunt brought several uncomfortable truths about Pakistan back to the fore.

Pakistanis are well aware of these truths and the international community ignores them at its own peril. In Pakistan, politics is a family business; the central government is incapable at best and unwilling at worst to meet the needs of its people; civil-military relations in the country are marked by decades of distrust and constantly undermine democracy; and the religious right and extremist groups are well-poised to gain advantage at the mere hint of any chaos.

Zardari’s refusal to return to Pakistan as floods devastated his country drew much criticism at home. As the death toll rose and storms raged unabated, so did anger against his seeming indifference.

One may argue that his presence in the country would have made little difference to the government’s inadequate response to the floods. After all, as author and commentator Kamila Shamsie said, “there is no place further away from the rest of Pakistan than the self-enclosed and self-serving world of government-dominated Islamabad.”

But a country’s top leader can do much in the way of boosting morale of its people in such trying times. As Pakistani columnist Ayaz Amir commented: “It is too much to expect he would have done anything to ease the plight of the flood-hit. But at least he could have spared the nation’s feelings.”

One wonders why then a president already so unpopular (in a latest opinion poll conducted in Pakistan by Washington-based Pew Research Center, only 20 percent of respondents had favorable views of Zardari) would take the risk. And this is where the grim reality of the country threatens to overwhelm.

According to numerous reports, Zardari’s trip was meant to further the political career of his young son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who recently graduated from Oxford. Bhutto Zardari co-chairs the country’s largest political party — the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) founded by his grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and later led by his mother Benazir — along with his father.

The young inheritor of the party was widely believed set to make his first political speech in front of party supporters in Birmingham, U.K. on Aug. 7 before his father wrapped up the trip. But Bhutto Zardari denied the reports saying he will continue his education, and instead of attending the rally opted to open a donation point at the Pakistani High Commission in London for flood victims.

If history is any proof, it is only a matter of time before the reins of the PPP pass to one of the Bhutto Zardari children. This stresses the unfortunate and enduring nature of dynastic politics in South Asia. Dean Nelson, the London Telegraph’s South Asia editor, reminds us how alarming the lack of merit and experience in the country’s future leaders is, given what’s at stake.

“As leader he will have influence over how the war on terror is waged and will play a key role in negotiating relations between civil society and the military, which looms menacingly over the country’s shaky democracy,” he writes.

The challenge of maintaining a civil-military balance in the country appears to have become yet more difficult following the latest crisis in the country. Zardari’s ill-timed trip and the central government’s poor response to the floods has allowed the army to position itself yet again as the most efficient national institution when it comes to safeguarding the interests of its people.

Critical reports of Zardari in the national media have often been accompanied by mentions of the army’s presence in the flood-hit areas offering relief to victims. Some of these media reports were possibly influenced by the army’s connections in the media, and hint at underlying tensions between the civilian government and the powerful military establishment. Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan expert at London-based Chatham House, said it behooves “the international community to ensure that it does not look the other way should the military in Pakistan use this national calamity to further its political fortunes.”

The last two weeks have stressed the weaknesses of the government in Islamabad and the disconnect between the ruling and the ruled in Pakistan. The future leadership faces mounting challenges as the country struggles with violence and terrorism, a weak economy, hostile relations with neighbors, a war in Afghanistan and a rapidly growing population.

But Pakistanis will have to live with leaders whose best qualifications may be their last names, unless the country is able to break away from feudal and personality-based politics.

Jayshree Bajoria is a staff writer for Asia at CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.