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Forget politics, Pakistan is drowning

By Mosharraf Zaidi, Special to CNN
  • Zardari's PPP draws power from Bhutto legacy and feudal patrons in the south
  • The floods will have only the most marginal impact on either of them, Zaidi says
  • Zaidi: Poorly timed trips to Europe will have dented international appeal
  • These floods are not the product of the civilian government's incompetence, Zaidi says

Editor's note: Mosharraf Zaidi has served governments and international organizations including the U.N. and the E.U. as an adviser on international aid and development. He writes a weekly column for Pakistan's The News, and a variety of other publications. His work can be found at his website.

(CNN) -- It seems almost certain that the devastating floods that have ravaged Pakistan since late July are going to have a severe and long-lasting impact on Pakistan's already fragile and mismanaged economy.

The floods have decimated Pakistan's most potent and fertile agricultural land, along the banks of the Indus River, they have destroyed a large share of the livestock population, and they have left more than 4 million people entirely homeless. The number of people affected now exceeds 20 million.

These people's livelihoods, health and future prospects have drowned in the floodwaters.

Some of the worst-hit areas along the Indus River are Southern Punjab and rural Sindh. The current ruling party, President Asif Ali Zardari's PPP is almost entirely dependent for its power on an intergenerational vote bank in this feudal "deep south" of Pakistan.

Video: Aid slow to Pakistan
Video: Life at a Pakistan relief camp

While the term feudal often conjures up images of unmitigated exploitation, in Pakistan, the social contract between the feudal rich and the poor is more complex. As protectors of their people, feudals cannot antagonize the very people that till their land, harvest their crops and most importantly, consistently turn out to vote for them.

The flooding has been of Biblical proportions. For the first time in many of the sleepy and tranquil villages of the PPP's heartland in South Punjab and Sindh, people have needed their feudal lords to protect and care for them.

Competing for favor with the traditional PPP elite of these areas are the new industrial elite of the Punjab, the Pakistani military itself, and of course, the banned militant Islamist group, the Jamaat ud Dawa.

Added to this vulnerability of the Southern Punjab and Sindh, are images of President Asif Ali Zardari traversing the globe, in France, in the United Kingdom, and just this week, in Russia.

Overall, it's hard to imagine that President Zardari and the PPP can survive the political impact of the floods. Yet Pakistan is a place that always stretches the imagination.

At his most popular, President Zardari scarcely enjoyed more than 20 percent favorable ratings. He is no Obama, and never has been. Luckily for him, power does not depend on the news media's approval, or urban sentiment, or even the opinion of the average PPP voter in South Punjab and Sindh.

Domestically, the PPP has two sources of power -- the Bhutto legacy, and the feudal patrons of South Punjab and Sindh. After all is said and done, the floods will have only the most marginal impact on either of them.

Internationally however, one of the most bankable assets of the PPP is its appeal as a relatively moderate party lead by a highly Westernized cadre of key leaders and advisers. The floods are going to leave this traditional area of strength for the PPP badly disfigured.

President Zardari's ill-advised, insensitive and poorly timed trips to Europe at the beginning of the catastrophe, and to Russia right at the peak of the destruction, represent only the tip of the iceberg for the international community.

There is an element of the boy who cried wolf about this government that is inescapable. The human catastrophe that these floods represent requires an international response that provides assistance to both international and Pakistani civil society, and to the Pakistani government.

But President Zardari and key members of his foreign policy team, like the Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, have spent almost two years constantly repeating the "Pakistan needs the world's support" refrain, as a quid pro quo for conducting military operations against terrorists hiding out in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

As far back as April of 2009, the ambassador was making impassioned pleas for a "Marshall Plan" for Pakistan worth at least $30 billion. Now that Pakistan really and truly needs $30 billion, it is going to be hard for the PPP's team of feudal lords and public intellectuals to make the case for aid to Pakistan with any rigor or credibility.

This distasteful reality is generating palpable fears that the first institutional casualty of the floods will be Pakistan's emaciated democracy. That would be adding a deep and irreversible insult to the severe injury inflicted by these floods.

As floodwaters continue to threaten the lives of millions more this week, the first and only focus of people, no matter where they live and what country they are from, should be on the humanitarian catastrophe represented by these floods. Supporting the international and Pakistan NGOs working round the clock to save lives is the best way to do that.

For all its political missteps and poor choices, these floods are not the product of the civilian government's incompetence, or the military's lust for power. They are the natural consequence of the most devastating rains seen in these parts in more than 80 years.

President Zardari's mistakes will eventually catch up to him, and his party. But they will only do so in the sustained environment of a democracy. Any military intervention in Pakistan will wipe away these mistakes. Even as it is inundated by floodwater, democracy remains Pakistan's greatest hope for a better future. Our dislike of Pakistan's feudal elite shouldn't distract us from that fact.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mosharraf Zaidi.

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