Pakistan food woes could swing voting
The Washington Times
By Abid Shah   
LAHORE, Pakistan — Soaring prices of flour, cooking oil and other staples are creating misery for ordinary Pakistanis ahead of Tuesday’s parliamentary elections, with many blaming the ruling party of President Pervez Musharraf.

“The laborers who eat at my shack yell that I am jacking the price of roti sky high,” says Ahmed Kashif, who operates a tiny shop in Lahore that sells the popular flat bread.

“People talk about terrorism, but here I know people going to bed hungry,” he said.

The economic deterioration has contributed to a slump in support for Mr. Musharraf’s political party, which was favored by just 14 percent in a survey released Monday by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI).

“Musharraf has created such conditions that I won’t see worse even after I die,” complained one woman, who gave only one name, Kulsum.

“We have completely stopped milk because bread is essential,” said the woman. “Previously, we used to save and buy fruit, but that has all stopped. We only get by on bread,” she said.

Meanwhile, Pakistani authorities searched for the country’s abducted ambassador to Afghanistan and two kidnapped nuclear experts yesterday as insecurity mounted ahead of crucial elections next week.

The abductions happened on Monday near the country’s rugged northwestern border with Afghanistan, where Taliban and al Qaeda militants are waging an insurgency against the U.S.-allied government in Islamabad.

The Pakistani envoy, Tariq Azizuddin, was heading to the Afghan capital, Kabul, with his driver on Monday when they disappeared in the lawless Khyber tribal district, officials said.

Approval of Mr. Musharraf’s performance is almost as low as that of his party, sagging to 15 percent in the IRI poll, and economist Abid Burki said the food prices “can have some impact on the election.”

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed by IRI said they intend to vote for the two leading opposition parties, one headed by the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the other by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The two parties said yesterday that they plan to form a coalition government, which would win an overwhelming majority in parliament if the IRI poll is accurate and the elections are free and fair.

The Pakistani government blames the high food prices on smuggling, hoarding and damage to transportation networks from rioting after Mrs. Bhutto’s Dec. 27 assassination.

The government buys wheat from local farmers at a fixed price.

“Their prices are lower than the international price, so it is quite natural to expect that there will be smuggling. So, smuggling has taken place to Afghanistan, to India and to other places,” said Mr. Burki, who teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Regardless of the cause, the price increases are causing severe hardship in a country where 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

“More than 50 percent of calories in rural areas are taken from wheat flour alone,” said Sahib Haq of the U.N. World Food Program.

“But [with] the present increase in prices, the poor are reducing their consumption, so this means they are not shifting to other commodities because rice is also very, very expensive.”

Even when the poor people switch from wheat to rice, they eat the lowest quality, tota, which also is used as bird feed. The price of tota doubled in January.

Two years ago, Pakistan had a wheat surplus. Last year, it began exporting wheat amid predictions that a bumper crop would yield a surplus of more than 1 million metric tons.

The weather failed to cooperate. Unusually high temperatures cut the harvest, leaving Pakistan with a shortage.

Naeem Butt of the Pakistan Flour Mills Association said the government has started importing wheat from abroad and halted exports.

But backed-up transportation networks have slowed the impact on wheat prices. Even if wheat prices are brought under control, the government concedes defeat elsewhere.

Farooq Ahmed Khan, chairman of the Federal Food Committee, indicated that the prices of cooking oil will increase even further. He blamed recent Chinese purchases of palm oil in the international market.

Many of the urban poor are recent immigrants from rural areas.

On the streets of Lahore, motorized rickshaw drivers could not stop complaining.

“Now we all talk about going back to the villages,” says one driver who gave his name as Mumtaz. “There, we can at least grow our own food.”


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