The crowd was truly impressive. Last Saturday, at least one hundred thousand people gathered at Minar-e-Pakistan in downtown Lahore for first rally of the election campaign. The event was organised by Imran Khan’s party – the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Not everybody in the crowd was supporting him. Some admitted, they did not know who they were going to vote. Some said they will vote for the PML-N. But everybody agreed on one thing: ‘the situation has to change.’
After five years in power, neither the PPP-led federal government, nor the PML-N-led provincial government in Punjab has achieved much. “This country has become unbearable to live in,” complains Mehreen Rana, a 32 year old lady from Lahore who is going to vote for Imran Khan. She says, “We can’t even get basic necessities any more. There is no gas and water in my house. I have electricity power cuts every thirty minutes. I have never seen that before.” Like many cities in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Lahore is deprived of power for 10 to 12 hours a day.
Without power, the economy is sluggish. Last year, the GDP grew from a meagre 3.7 % which is insufficient to provide enough jobs for millions of young people. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 35 % of population is less than 15 years old. Asked about the issues that next government should focus on, Lahorites reply the same: ‘electricity, gas, jobs, education.’ People living in Quetta and in KPK also add ‘terrorism’ to the wish list.
Pakistani politicians have understood people’s exasperation very well. They all pledge to change the country in a short time. Pervez Musharraf returned to Pakistan on Sunday even if he lost most of his supporters. His agenda is simple: “My heart cries of blood when I see the state of the country today. I want to restore the Pakistan I left,” he said. His heart may not help much to revamp the economy and tackle terrorism. Musharraf is not the only one to make vague promises in an attempt to woo voters. Imran Khan has been claiming that if PTI comes to power, it will eradicate corruption and terrorism within three months. How he plans to achieve it remains a riddle.
Instead of making these kinds of commitments, ruling parties have leveraged and implemented demagogic plans. In Lahore, the PML-N has given free laptops to students. And in less than a year, it has built a modern metro bus system which connects south of the city to the north. Officially, this has cost 29 billion rupees – around 16 billion Indian rupees. The shiny red air conditioned buses are indeed blessing for the poor. A ticket costs 20 rupees only – barely 11 Indian rupees, and it is heavily subsidised. It is unlikely that it will show profit.
As far as the PPP is concerned, it has been giving cash to low-income families with no strings attached through the Benazir Income Support program. It is a bid to help those who struggle to make ends meet because an eight percent inflation rate is nibbling on their income. It is being supported by the World Bank even so critics allege that PPP is focusing the program in the areas where it has strong support like rural Sindh and south Punjab. According to the estimates published by the Pakistani government and the World Bank, more than 120 billion rupees – 66 billion Indian rupees would have been given away from 2008 to 2013.
Whether such populist steps will help the PPP and the PML-N to secure more votes is hard to say. The outcome of the elections is difficult to predict as polls are projecting various results. But along with corruption, terrorism and an alarming fall of foreign direct investments –Pakistanbarely attracted 525 million dollars of FDI from July 2012 to January 2013, these plans have placedPakistan’s balance of payment in a dire situation. On 6 March, Werner Liepach, the director of Asian Development Bank in Islamabad warned that Pakistan may need six to nine billion dollars from the IMF by end of the year. According to him, the country is experiencing fast decline of its foreign exchange reserves and can only pay for three months of imports.