available languages: english October 5, 2010

This article was originally published in The Daily Star  and can also be found here.

By Michael Meyer-Resende

Berlin – Pakistan’s floods have probably been the biggest natural calamity ever faced by a democracy. Beyond the immediate human suffering, they could become a tragedy for Pakistan’s political development.

Pakistan is making its third attempt since its independence in 1947 at making democracy work. There was great enthusiasm when democracy was restored in 2008, but the current media reporting on the floods projects an image of a government about to collapse. In a country with a history of military coups, such reports can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But they are not warranted.

Many commentators assumed that Pakistan’s democracy was already doomed when Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari travelled to Europe as the waters started rising. Surely his visit to the family chateau in Normandy would be his “Marie Antoinette moment” and he would be toppled, or so the argument went. But although the president has not done himself any favours by making the trip, he has not been toppled.

Despite the controversies about the government’s ability to respond to the crisis, the federal state and the provinces are working as before. The Pakistani army is undertaking the bulk of the emergency work, as would happen in any other country, but it has not taken over political control in any of the disaster areas.

One reason for the relative political stability, as pointed to by Zardari, is probably that neither the army nor any opposition party has an incentive to take charge of Pakistan in this situation. There may be other reasons also: the country completed far-reaching constitutional reform in April, which clipped the president’s powers and strengthened parliament. Thus Zardari’s role and conduct were less central to the crisis response than would have been the case before.

Media have also rung alarm bells on government corruption, when reports emerged that international aid received after the 2005 earthquakes was unaccounted for. However, back then the army was in power. There is no question that Pakistan suffers from significant corruption, but it is not clear why the corruption debate is louder than it has been during other emergencies. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which is the closest there is to an impartial view on corruption, Pakistan ranks better than Haiti – or even Russia and Kyrgyzstan for that matter.

The feverish reporting on Pakistan’s politics may be the result of something positive. For 10 years independent media outlets have mushroomed with the result that the media environment is now highly pluralistic, if often rambunctious and inexperienced. Crises, corruption and government failure, whether alleged or real, receive far more attention in Pakistan than in other countries.

The media frenzy has overlooked the bigger challenge that may arise in the coming years. Reconstruction will be costly and slow, and will otherwise disappoint many expectations of a quick return to normal life. Accusations of corruption will be more corrosive than ever, when every rupee will be needed to help those in need. Displaced persons will head for the big, struggling cities. In the violent metropolis of Karachi, their presence will add to the tension. Extremist elements will have more space. If badly handled, reconstruction will not only undermine the government, but any belief in democratic rule at large.

The international community should provide all the help it can, from financial assistance to market access. The Pakistani government and political parties need to do their part, by creating accountable mechanisms for the spending of flood aid and cooperating across party lines between the central government and the provinces.

Expanding democracy would help address the challenges of reconstruction. Currently there are no elected local governments in Pakistan, although before the floods all provinces had planned to hold elections for these offices. While it may seem strange to suggest elections now, when people are in need of food, medication and housing, elected local governments would create local involvement as well as accountability in the reconstruction effort. If local communities have a say, they are more likely to set the right priorities and understand the constraints of the relief effort.

Pakistan’s democracy will face difficult times in the coming years, but its failure would be in nobody’s long-term interest. Military rule did not serve the country well. There is no reason to view democracy as more dispensable in Pakistan than in other countries. If Pakistanis are not happy with the flood relief, they should have the right to vote local, provincial and federal governments out of office. There is no reason why anybody else should decide on their behalf.

Michael Meyer-Resende is Executive Director of Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based organisation promoting political participation. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Daily Star.