Economic woes deepen gloom before vote in Pakistan
Reuters: Jan 8, 2008
By Mark Bendeich - Analysis
KARACHI (Reuters) - Economic issues loomed large over Pakistan's bloody election campaign as food queues and power cuts further dimmed President Pervez Musharraf's political fortunes just 12 days after his main rival was killed.
Musharraf, and the political parties that back him in the run-up to February 18 parliamentary elections, are besieged on two fronts: accused of failing to protect slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and of allowing basic services to fall apart.
Pakistanis, already angry over the still-unsolved assassination, are complaining bitterly of prolonged blackouts, shortages of flour, a staple, and rising prices. The front pages of dailies now fret over the economy as much as Bhutto's death.
"It's extraordinary, this kind of crisis," said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. "Musharraf should be the most worried person. This is a difficult situation in any case."
Musharraf is not running for election in the polls but hopes parties allied to him perform well enough to form government that can safeguard his presidency, analysts said.
That was already a challenge when Bhutto was killed in a gun-and-bomb attack on the campaign trail on December 27.
But the flour shortage, blamed on hoarding and smuggling of wheat because of low prices and expectations of a poor crop, has hit the nation of 160 million people where it hurts.
"It's not fair," said Younis, a retired worker who said he had waited in vain for hours outside a government store in Karachi to buy flour. He was among dozens of empty-handed people jostling at the front door, pleading with the storekeeper.
"We are very angry. He is giving only to his relatives."
Roti, or unleavened bread, is eaten with almost every meal, from the poorest household to the wealthiest.
And, increasingly, these meals are also being eaten by candlelight, or in complete darkness, thanks to a worsening shortage of power and continuous nationwide blackouts. The prices of candles are rising as Pakistanis stock up on them.
MUSHARRAF'S PERFECT STORM?
To conserve power, Pakistan recently ordered all steel-melting plants to close for two weeks and for hundreds of textile mills to reduce operations, a government official said on Saturday. Offices and shopping centers were told to close early.
Pakistan is suffering a power deficit of up to 3,600 megawatts due to low water levels at hydro dams and damage to two main power lines attacked during the three days of violence that erupted after Bhutto's assassination.
Even before Bhutto's death, and the escalation of power cuts, an opinion poll by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute showed that two-thirds of Pakistanis wanted Musharraf to quit and that his allies would fare badly at elections.
Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party has been traumatized by her murder and, though it is committed to contesting the election, is still attacking Musharraf over the assassination and has yet to refocus on its campaign slogan, "Food, Shelter, Clothing."
But Musharraf's other main opponent, former premier Nawaz Sharif, is now campaigning hard on the economy and has called for Musharraf's immediate resignation and the formation of an all-party government to conduct free and fair elections.
Sharif condemned the "policies which have brought the country to the brink of economic disaster", though Pakistan was virtually bankrupt when Musharraf ousted Sharif in 1999.
The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League, known as the Q League of PML-Q, which led the outgoing government, denied it was vulnerable to a voter backlash over the current problems and pointed to the past five years of above-average economic growth.
"No government is perfect, neither were the previous governments. But there have been solid achievements and that cannot be ignored," said Tariq Azim Khan, a senior party official.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)
Also See:Bhutto's Heir Takes Central Stage - BBC; January 8, 2008