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Pakistanis say political sideshow distracts from their real problems

At the shabby Waseem Cafe – one of the few places in the heart of the affluent, purpose-built capital of Islamabad where ordinary Pakistanis gather – the mood on a recent afternoon was grim, and patrons were deeply disillusioned with Islamabad’s main business: politics.

Four and a half years after an elected government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party replaced military rule, customers at the roadside cafe and surrounding Aabpara market voiced alarmingly low support for democracy. The disillusionment reflected the calamitous state of the country’s politics amid worsening challenges for the poor in Pakistan, recipients of billions of dollars in U.S. aid.

In June, after months of legal and political wrangling, the Supreme Court threw the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, out of office for contempt of court, replacing him with a controversial former minister of power and water who’s been tainted himself by corruption allegations.

Gilani had been prime minister for the entire tenure of the party, which won elections in 2008 just weeks after party leader Benazir Bhutto’s assassination by Islamic extremists.

Muhammad Habib, a 40-year-old laborer at a printing press next to the Waseem Cafe, said, “We gave the Peoples Party the vote because she had died. But whoever comes in just loots the poor.”

Habib earns 300 rupees a day, barely more than $3, with which he supports a wife and two children in his village three hours’ drive from Islamabad. He complained that the price of a cup of tea at the cafe has risen threefold from five years ago, while a piece of fresh bread, known as roti, has more than doubled. A plate of the simplest food, lentils, costs 40 rupees, not an insignificant sum for someone such as Habib.

Under the Pakistan Peoples Party, food-price inflation consistently has been in double digits while electricity shortages have spiraled; residents in rural areas can go up to 20 hours a day without electricity, while residents of urban areas can go 12 hours. That makes household living miserable, especially in the heat of summer.

All Pakistani governments have been accused of graft, but the current Pakistan Peoples Party is widely criticized for taking corruption to new levels, including allegations leveled against Gilani and the new prime minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court, hearing a case relating to Ashraf’s tenure as power minister, ruled that the anti-corruption watchdog, the National Accountability Bureau, investigate Ashraf and other top officials.

Ashraf has come under fire for failing to take measures to tackle the electricity shortage when he was in charge of the power ministry, while pursuing expensive schemes that appeared to be aimed at benefiting cronies. The Supreme Court dubbed his plans for rental or temporary power plants a “scam.”

The sideshow in the corridors of power is far removed from the cheap shopping district of Aabpara – which is just a couple of miles from the prime minister’s residence and the Supreme Court building – where the Waseem Cafe is next to shops that sell everything from food supplies to electrical appliances. At Pictorial Printers, which owner Tariq Safdar’s father started in 1966, they’re able to run their presses for just three hours out of their eight-hour workday.

“It’s basically like not having electricity at all,” said Safdar, who’s reduced his workforce from 35 employees two years ago to 20 today. “We basically can’t work.”

The government must call elections next March, though many are predicting they’ll be called early, perhaps this fall. The Pakistan Peoples Party is led by Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s husband, who also serves as Pakistan’s president. The presidency theoretically is a ceremonial post, but Zardari’s party position gives him effective control over the government.

“We don’t want this new prime minister and we don’t want Zardari,” Safdar said.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Washington allied with Pakistan’s then-military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who’d seized power in 1999. After coming to believe that Musharraf was secretly supporting the insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan, U.S. officials backed the restoration of democracy, and elections took place in February 2008.

Since 2001, the U.S. has given Pakistan more than $20 billion in assistance, two-thirds of it going to the military and other security-related areas. Still, the U.S. has become increasingly unpopular here, primarily for sucking Pakistan into an Afghan war that many here see as illegitimate and that’s resulted in a violent backlash by Islamist militants in Pakistan. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 74 percent of Pakistanis viewed the U.S. as an enemy.

“There is so much unemployment, it is beyond measure. Then there is inflation. And then the electricity shortage,” said Muhammad Yaar Maskeen, a 60-year-old cook at the Waseem Cafe, as he fried up a spicy goat-brain dish. “The poor man cannot live in Pakistan.”

Maskeen makes about $2.63 a day. The cafe gives him meals and a place to sleep, but he has a wife and three children to support in a village three hours south. “I have to pay for everything: the rent, clothing for the children, everything. . . . . I’m 60 and I’m still laboring,” he said

Sajjad Hussain, a 50-year-old government clerk, who was drinking tea, said Pakistan’s best period was under Gen. Zia ul-Haq – an Islamist military dictator who was a darling of Washington – because food prices remained unchanged during his rule from 1977 to 1988.

Military governments, which have ruled Pakistan for more than half its existence, won popularity by subsidizing food and fuel, often by secretly diverting U.S. military-aid money. The tactic, however, is unsustainable, and subsequent civilian administrations have been unable to afford the subsidies.

The current government, which has been faced with a budget crisis since it took office, has been cutting subsidies for electricity, fuel and food. High international commodity prices and devastating flooding in 2010 and 2011 have hampered the administration.

Altaf Abbasi, the manager of the Waseem Cafe, said three or four customers now shared a single dish of food to economize.

“Our business, in fact this whole market, is down 50 percent,” Abbasi said. “What difference will a new prime minister make? If they haven’t managed to do anything in four years, how can they with the six months remaining?”

Traditionally, the support base of the liberal Pakistan Peoples Party isn’t in cities such as Islamabad but in the countryside. The government has raised the support price of agricultural produce, almost doubling the price of wheat, which has helped farmers large and small. The party’s flagship Benazir Income Support Program provides a monthly cash supplement of 1,000 rupees – about $10.60 – to more than 5 million poor families, a scheme backed by U.S. aid money and other international donors.

Sakib Sherani, an economic consultant and former adviser to the Finance Ministry, said that while rural areas had done relatively well under Pakistan Peoples Party rule, the cash supplement scheme was merely a “Band-Aid.”

A National Nutrition Survey last year described the hunger situation as alarming, with the hardest-hit area, southern Sindh province – a traditional Pakistan Peoples Party heartland – seeing malnutrition levels that were among the worst in the world. The survey found that 58 percent of the population was “food insecure,” meaning that they either go hungry or have real concerns about their food supply.

“This government has been marked by incompetence and lack of focus on improving the lives of people,” Sherani said.

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