Pocketbooks, not politics on minds of Pakistanis
Chicago Tribune
By Kim Barker

GUJAR KHAN, Pakistan — Mumraiz Akhtar dressed his three sons in their best sweaters Thursday for a special outing to the holiday animal market, to see the goats painted with fluorescent pink dots and the cows with necklaces of plastic flowers.

The boys begged their father to buy an animal. But he said no. The price of animals for the Islamic Eid al-Adha holiday has doubled and even tripled in the past five years, and Akhtar, who makes $3.33 a day working odd jobs, could not spend $167 on a goat. He could barely afford to pay $1 for a kilogram of lentils, which cost 50 cents three years ago, or even to buy sugar, a commodity now described throughout Pakistan like a precious gem.

“What do I care about an election?” said Akhtar, 32, holding his youngest son in his arms and looking at the goats he could never afford. “I don’t have electricity. I don’t have gas. I don’t have water.”

As Pakistan prepares for parliamentary elections Jan. 8, many voters in the country sound increasingly cynical about what democracy might bring. They complain about embattled President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1999, and say he cares more about holding on to power than helping Pakistan. They have little hope that either of the two main opposition leaders, former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, will change anything.

But for most people in the country, the economy is the biggest concern, more than the country’s controversial help in the U.S.-led war on terror, the rise in Islamic militancy or the squashing of civil rights by the recent six-week emergency.

Inflation worries

A poll in late November by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based non-profit group, gave respondents a choice of 12 issues that would determine which political party they would support. A whopping 53 percent of 3,250 people picked inflation, followed by 15 percent who chose unemployment and 9 percent who chose poverty. Only 6 percent picked terrorism; just 2 percent chose democratic reforms.

In Gujar Khan, just as in other parts of Pakistan, people complained that the price of sugar has doubled in the past two months. The prices for milk, wheat, lentils, meat, mustard oil — all the staples of a Pakistani kitchen — have shot up in the past two years. Gas prices are expected to rise even higher in the coming months.

Here and in other towns in Punjab province, potential voters have hung their own election banners, demanding fair prices for gas and flour, or waved them at political rallies.

“Sugar is so expensive, it’s beyond the reach of people,” said Nasim Taqi, 45, a professor at a government community college in Gujar Khan. “Every basic necessity of life is not affordable. The true picture here is very, very deplorable.”

The statistics on food inflation in Pakistan are hard to dispute.

In July, the State Bank of Pakistan unexpectedly raised its key interest rate because of “worrisome” increases in food prices. In October, government statistics showed food costs had increased an average of 14 percent from a year earlier. And after Musharraf declared emergency rule Nov. 3, many people hoarded food, driving up prices even further.

Gujar Khan, a town of about 73,000 people about 33 miles southeast of Islamabad, is the gateway to the heartland of Pakistan, Punjab province, and in some ways a barometer of popular sentiment. The people here are known for being blunt. They are also known for joining the army, the institution that has run Pakistan directly or behind the scenes for most of its 60 years.

Two of the 10 recipients of the nation’s highest military award were from Gujar Khan, including Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, handpicked by Musharraf to replace him as army chief in November. Many here said they have a close relative in the army, in the past an indicator that someone would be pro-government.

But people here spoke with rising frustration about the direction of the country and the economy. They shouted “Musharraf zero,” and “Musharraf is a rascal.”

Even the deputy mayor of the town, Malik Atif Rafique, from Musharraf’s ruling party, acknowledged food prices were too high. “There’s no stability in this country,” he said, adding he still supported Musharraf.

The situation has deteriorated so much that many families in Gujar Khan and elsewhere could not afford to buy an animal to sacrifice Friday for Eid al-Adha, one of the biggest Islamic holidays of the year.

Taqi, the college professor, said he could not afford a goat. Neither could the retired police officer who at age 60 is looking for another job so he can feed his family. Nor could the electrician who makes $62 a month working for the town government.

“I can buy just the skin of an animal,” said Muhammad Shafi, 52, the electrician. “I can’t even afford medicine, wheat or flour. How could I afford an animal? Cement is cheap in this government, but flour is expensive.”

Election outcome

It is not yet clear what inflation gripes mean for the relatively stagnant political parties and the election. Both Bhutto and Sharif are blaming Musharraf for out-of-control prices, but both have already served two lackluster terms. Sharif, credited with doing a better job at controlling inflation, could pull in more votes for his party, political analysts said.

But in all likelihood, such worries and dissatisfaction with any potential leaders mean that Pakistanis are less likely to rush out to protest election results, even if they are controversial, analysts said. None of the top candidates inspire anyone enough to risk being jailed or even injured in a riot. No one can afford to be in jail.

“Why aren’t people out on the streets?” said a Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. “Because if they go out on the streets, they’ll be arrested, and then what will happen to them or their families?” Although many people in Gujar Khan complained about the economy and the national government, they also had no plans to do anything radical. Several said they planned to boycott.

Akhtar, the father of three at the goat market, said he doubted anything would change, but he still planned to vote. He just was waiting for the right candidate to come forward.

“I am a poor man,” he said. “I will vote for whoever pays me the most.”

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