(Phatforums News / USA Today) — KARACHI, Pakistan – Danish Arif, a seller of colorful fabrics at the Mehran Bazaar, repeated what many here say about the direction of Pakistan and its latest change in leaders.
“Who cares who comes and who goes,” says Arif as sellers haggle over yards of colorful embroidered cloth. “As long as they’re good for the country.”
The United States’ focus in Pakistan since 9/11 has been on combating radicalism, the latest example of which was the suicide bombing Monday of a U.S. government vehicle. The explosion killed two Pakistanis and wounded two Americans.
For Pakistanis, the declining standard of living — and not the war against Islamists here or in Afghanistan — is what many say concerns them most. The government has failed to turn around high unemployment, soaring inflation and stagnant wages.
Pakistan’s latest shift in leadership placed former energy minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in the prime minister’s seat. He was appointed in June after the Supreme Court ruled that his predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, had to resign for refusing to investigate charges of corruption against the government.
Ashraf inherits a country where killings for profit, as well as politics, honor and religious beliefs, are not uncommon, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In Karachi, a city of 20 million that generates half of the country’s wealth, 1,450 people were murdered in the first six months of the year, the commission says.
The U.S. military believes the reclusive head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, is here, and U.S. and Pakistani news media report that U.S. drone strikes regularly kill leaders of radical groups.
The United States has accused Pakistan of not doing enough to combat radicalism despite $1.3 billion in U.S. aid annually. However, under Ashraf, Pakistan resolved a matter of importance to the U.S. military when it reopened a critical border crossing of supplies to American troops in Afghanistan that was shut down after an errant U.S. attack that killed 28 Pakistani soldiers.
Many here believe Ashraf will do little to change everyday life for Pakistanis. “Raja Pervez Ashraf is a nothing candidate, picked in haste,” said Cyril Almeida, a columnist at the DAWN daily newspaper. “His influence on policy will be zero to none.”
Ashraf, 61, served as the minister of water and power from 2008 to 2011 under former prime minister Gilani. In that time, Ashraf was unable to solve the country’s endless power shortages.
Instead, he oversaw the creation of temporary or “rental” power plants, for which he received the nickname “Raja Rental.” In March, the Supreme Court ordered the National Accountability Bureau to investigate the power deals for possible corruption.
The court also threatens to cut short Ashraf’s tenure as prime minister. It has given him until Sept. 18 to explain why he, like his predecessor, has yet to reopen a corruption investigation into Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari.
Meanwhile, ordinary Pakistanis hope for improvement. Pakistan’s economic growth rate is the lowest in South Asia and has been in decline for 10 years. Nearly one-quarter of its 177 million people live under the international poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Pakistan has an inflation rate of over 11% annually, the highest in Asia. The government is slashing subsidies for electricity and fuel, making things tougher on many Pakistanis.
Hamida Bano, who works as a maid, says most of her income goes to transportation to work and to vegetables and milk for herself, her mother and 13-year-old son. And food keeps costing more. The price of rice has doubled in the past year, she says.
“The prices never come down, they just keep going up. (Earlier), you could afford to buy good quality cooking oil for half the cost you can now,” she says.
Meanwhile, power outages occur for five to 10 hours every day on average, the government says. Mohammed Tayyab, who embroiders women’s outfits for a living in his shop, says his electricity bill has quadrupled in four years.
“I charge the same prices I did four years ago, because there’s so much competition that I would lose customers if I charged more,” said Tayyab, a tape measure hanging around his neck. “When I think of what’s going to happen with the inflation in this country, I can’t sleep.”
Others fret over the worsening violence and crime. Crimes against women, such as rape and honor killings, are on the rise, according to reports from District Police Offices.
“There’s so much bloodshed on the street, you can’t step out of the house,” Arif says.
Pakistan analysts say Ashraf is limited in what he can do because of Pakistan’s all-powerful military.
“I don’t anticipate Ashraf’s election radically impacting U.S.-Pakistan relations,” said Arif Rafiq, an adjunct fellow at The Middle East Institute in Washington. “The only risk is that he poorly manages the day-to-day affairs as chief executive.”
Tayyab the embroiderer hopes that is not the case, but he is not optimistic.
“I don’t really care who comes and goes — but, from the looks of things, it won’t be someone uncorrupt,” Tayyab says.