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President Asif Ali Zardari’s hollow achievement

While the president celebrated in March as his civilian government became the first to finish a full term, many Pakistanis didn’t join him

Image Credit: AFP
Workers prepare campaign banners bearing the portrait of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto for the Pakistan Peoples Party
Gulf News

Mir Hassan Chandio pulled up a chair in the village where he has lived for eight decades and from the shade of a tree laid bare his anger towards President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan Peoples Party ahead of elections.

“Nobody came once the Peoples Party gained power,” Chandio said in Pir Paryal Shah, a collection of mostly mud homes near the Indus River. With promises of jobs, a medical clinic and a sewage system to drain stinking ponds unfulfilled since the 2008 parliament ballot, life has “just got worse.”

The rebellious mood in traditional bastions such as this village in Sindh province underscores the challenges Zardari’s party faces as it seeks re-election May 11 with the economy having grown under its guidance at about half the annual pace of the previous five years. Failing governance and spreading sectarian violence risk eroding support for democracy as memories fade of the last bout of military rule.

“Politicians have failed miserably to improve lives,” Rashid Khan, a politics professor at the University of Sargodha in central Pakistan, said by phone. “The grim economic and security situation makes these elections the most crucial in our history. The next government has to get it right.”

While Zardari, the 57-year-old widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, celebrated in March as his civilian government became the first to finish a full term, many Pakistanis didn’t join him. More picked army leadership or Islamic law as their favoured basis for administration in a survey in April by the British Council, a British government cultural body. Only 6 per cent of 18- to-29-year-olds — a demographic that accounts for almost a third of the electorate — thought Pakistan was moving in the right direction. One in five of the 5,271 people polled nationwide expected their economic situation to improve in the next 12 months. About 70 percent viewed political parties unfavourably.

Zardari is due to remain president until September, when members of the parliament and local assemblies to be elected later this month will vote for a successor or reinstate him. The National Assembly elects the prime minister. His party faces those of a resurgent former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former cricket star Imran Khan, who has drawn hundreds of thousands of supporters to rallies with an anti-establishment message. While Musharraf ended his exile in March, a bid to return to politics has been blocked by election authorities. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League faction was preferred by 37 per cent in a Gallup analysis of two opinion polls in March. That is more than double the 16 per cent garnered by the Peoples Party. The Sharif stronghold of Punjab province sends more than half of 272 directly elected lower-house lawmakers to parliament. Still, with village feudal power structures intact and allies to be wooed, Sharif isn’t assured of victory, said Kamran Bokhari, vice-president for South Asia and the Middle East at Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor. “Zardari is a very shrewd politician. The game is not over.”

A first-past-the-post system may mean Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf struggles to turn its 16 per cent Gallup backing into a substantial number of National Assembly seats. Qamar Zaman Kaira, a Zardari aide and minister in the outgoing government, said any assessment of Peoples Party rule must begin with the situation it inherited — a war with Taliban guerrillas, a yawning power deficit, and institutions hollowed out by nearly a decade of military rule. Deteriorating ties with the United States, the government’s largest aid donor, amid the war on terrorism, and clashes at home with the army and the judiciary — one over corruption allegations against Zardari in Swiss courts — didn’t help.

“When we took over, Pakistan’s federation was about to collapse,” Kaira said, a reference to the constitutional upheaval that followed Musharraf’s power grab. “It’s only because of Zardari’s reconciliation policies that our democratic system is working and we are going to have elections,” he said by phone.

“Things were already going south,” said Bokhari of Stratfor. “Pakistan was facing many problems. But Zardari was unable to prevent things from getting worse.” As leaders step up their campaigns, they will be watched within and beyond Pakistan’s borders. Religious extremists, including those behind sectarian bombings that have killed hundreds of members of the minority Shiite sect of Islam since December, exploit poverty to attract followers. Turmoil in Pakistan undermines efforts to negotiate better ties with India amid a nuclear-armed rivalry that blights the subcontinent’s security.

“A stable Pakistan is crucial to a stable region,” Ryan Crocker, American ambassador in Islamabad from 2004 to 2007, said April 1 in a phone briefing held by the Council on Foreign Relations. “Pakistan is in a state of institutional failure. It’s not a failed state, but you could argue it is a failing state.”

At the heart of its woes lies a long-brewing energy crisis that affects almost every citizen. Blackouts of as long as 18 hours a day sliced 2 percentage points off growth in the year to June, according to the Planning Commission. The $210 billion (Dh771 billion) economy expanded at an annual average of 3 per cent since 2008, below the 7 per cent pace the Asian Development Bank says is needed to provide jobs for an idle workforce. The budget deficit has surged to a two-decade high as revenues stalled. Only 856,000 of Pakistan’s 195 million people pay taxes. Servicing an International Monetary Fund bailout that was extended in 2008 to help the nation avoid a default on overseas debt is pressuring reserves. Holdings declined to $7.1 billion, the central bank said in a April 4 statement, enough to cover about two months of imports and about a 40 per cent drop from a year ago.

“Pakistan is standing on the brink of another crisis,” Sakib Sherani, chief executive officer at Macro Economic Insights, said in an interview in Islamabad. “By June, if you don’t have another IMF loan, you have a problem with reserves dipping to a very serious level.”

Chandio and his fellow villagers are among those bearing the brunt: About 27 per cent of Pakistanis live in severe poverty, according to the UN’s 2013 Human Development Report. Less than 1 per cent of gross domestic product is allocated for health care, a smaller proportion than in the insurrection-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, World Bank data show. While those living in poverty declined 10 per cent between 2001 and 2005, the number didn’t fall in the following six years, according to the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development. Income repatriated by 10 million overseas workers last year kept many afloat.

The Peoples Party still uses the slogan of Zardari’s late father-in-law, former premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who founded the group in 1967 vowing to fulfil the basic needs of Pakistanis — food, shelter and clothing.

Sharif, an industrialist who was introduced to politics by former army dictator Zia-ul-Haq, the general who deposed and then executed the elder Bhutto in 1979, targets urban voters, especially in Punjab, which generates more than half of Pakistan’s economic output. Two Nineties stints as prime minister, the second cut short by Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 army coup, saw Sharif privatise the banking sector and raise infrastructure spending.

In Pir Paryal Shah, named after a 20th-century Sufi saint who gave up his wealth to help the poor and located 150 kilometres northeast of Karachi, women cook meals with water drawn by handpumps as children play next to foetid drains. The village was without power for three days in March after the distribution system collapsed, said Abdur Rahim, a health worker. “If we could get a hospital here, it would solve some of our problems,” Rahim said.

Measles and malaria are common.

Rehmatullah, a 30-year-old farm labourer, said he voted for the Peoples Party in 2008 to honour the memory of Benazir Bhutto, killed as a bomb ripped through an election rally in late 2007. “No electricity, no jobs and no sanitation system,” had changed his mind. For others, ties don’t break easily. “I will vote for Zardari because that party is our only hope,” said Mohammad Deen, 46, a school principal. “Someone, someday, will listen to us.”

–Washington Post