x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Jostling for power in the wake of Pakistan's floods

The ruling Pakistan People's Party seems to have ensured its own demise by its mismanagement of the crisis.

For some, the silver lining to Pakistan's floods is that the ruling Pakistan People's Party, led by the president Asif Ali Zardari, seems to have ensured its own demise by its mismanagement of the crisis. The situation is so grave that Mr Zardari's own allies, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), which is a partner in his government, has openly called for military intervention. Pakistanis are painfully aware of the indifference of the political leadership, the ineptitude of the civil administration, and the humiliation caused by corruption. That leaves an opening for other groups to consolidate power - if not the military, then the extremist groups that have stepped in to fill the breach.

So far, relief operations have been better organised in the north-west Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which was first hit. However, downstream in southern Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan, relief is intermittent and flood victims have frequently protested against the lack of assistance. That may be a sign of worse things to come as government officials warned yesterday of possible food riots if aid is not distributed. But surprisingly, even in the worst hit areas there is a visible spirit of sharing. Whatever people receive is generally shared with the less fortunate.

The real problems are going to multiply in the next few months, when damage to crops and livestock begins to have an effect. Prices of consumer goods will rise and contributions dry up. It is possible that the donations that are still in the pipeline will see Pakistan through the winter. If not, food riots and general instability become a very real possibility. The floods have already exposed age-old rivalries. Tribes in Sindh and neighbouring Balochistan, frequently referred to as cousins but more often enemies in actuality, have played politics with disaster management. As the River Indus began to overflow downstream, a breech was essential. One proposed location would have inundated the land holdings of an influential minister from Sindh; not surprisingly, the flood was diverted to Balochistan where it destroyed valuable cropland.

Traditionally, whenever a crisis arises, Pakistanis look towards the army for assistance; it is disciplined and organised, and it has the resources and, usually, the will. This time all three services of the military responded first, with the army being the most visible. Even the efforts of US forces are being credited to the army. Donations to the army's flood relief fund are dwarfing contributions to the separate funds of leading politicians including Mr Zardari and his son and political scion Bilawal Bhutto.

Still, the MQM's request that the army not only intervene, but also hold politicians and bureaucrats accountable for corruption came as a surprise. A partner of the ruling coalition has taken a strong stance seemingly at odds with its own civilian government. Unsurprisingly, the call elicited a favourable response from the small crowd of retired bureaucrats and sidelined politicians, but was vocally condemned by other political parties, the judiciary and even the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen Association.

For the time being, the army seems unlikely to usurp power from the civilian government, content to play the role of the people's champion toiling in the background. But with the passage of time, and in the event that food riots do begin, expectations of an army intervention are bound to increase. The present army is unlikely to respond unless things get totally out of hand. If the army does intervene, it would probably form an interim civilian government to oversee immediate elections.

@body arnhem:Next to the Pakistani military, the most visible organisations are Saudi charity groups, religious organisations and the US military. This is not without complications. Zubair, from Muzzafargarh district in the Punjab, is humiliated by the fact that he has to accept American assistance. "But what else can I do? They have helicopters and the army allocates areas to them. We fall in the area allocated to them."

For now at least, it is not the civilian government which is providing an alternative, but religious groups who are sometimes associated with extremism. "The first people to organise free food for us were religious leaders," said Rasool Khan, from Nowshehra district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. "They are the best organised, even better than the army, at least locally." Pakistanis generally reject extremism but are deeply religious. If, as it appears, the army is not going to intervene politically and the civilian leadership continues to wander lost, does that leave a vacuum for extremists to fill? It is a distinct possibility which would affect the country for generations.

The US has warned that Pakistani Taliban may target aid workers - a move which would seemingly be against their own interests as they are already gaining respect for their aid efforts. Yet, an attack on a mosque in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Monday demonstrates how irrational these groups can be. Still, I remain optimistic. There are instances, particularly in Sindh, of Hindus assisting Muslims in need and vice versa. Pakistanis have shown their resilience before. But for now, that optimism is a hope, and nothing more.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer.