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Searching for a Leader
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"I think Musharraf should stay; he's the only one who can fight the terrorism that is engulfing our country," says Shaheen Sarwar, 40, a part-time domestic help in Lahore. Sarwar's confidence in the President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, 64, is absolute.

And what's her opinion on the democratically elected two former prime ministers? "Both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto were not only corrupt but terrorists themselves," she retorts. 

However, Safia Bibi, 50, a mother of nine, who has been washing clothes in a number of rich households for the last 35 years, believes it was popular leaders, like Bhutto and Sharif, who actually did something for the people. "All Musharraf did was seize power. As for rooting out terrorism, he's the cause of it all." 

The warm-up to general elections in Pakistan has begun. But things are back to square one. With the political scene getting murkier, the average Pakistani doesn't know whether to celebrate the coming homecoming of the two former prime ministers, or to mourn the lack of a fresh and honest leadership that can steer Pakistan towards a better and stable future.

Recently, former premier Nawaz Sharif was deported to Saudi Arabia hours after he returned from exile, eager to ignite a popular campaign to oust the military ruler. In a dramatic showdown at Islamabad airport, Sharif, 57, refused to hand over his passport to the authorities, sparking an immediate confrontation that led to his being sent off to Jeddah. 

Ironically, Pakistan has, for most of its 60-year existence, been under military dictators - with a few interludes of democracy. Yet, poor women either seem indifferent to who rules the nation or just want the army to stay. 

Sarwar, who has studied till class seven, suffers from sleepless nights, but not as a result of the political cauldron that Pakistan has become. Nor does she mull over whether democracy (as defined by the West), or whether 'military democracy' (propagated by General Musharraf) is best for her country. 

The primary issue on the minds of women like her is not the political drama. It is skyrocketing inflation - approximately 8.9 per cent - particularly rising food prices. "Till the government helps eradicate hunger, provides quality primary education to all and pays attention to the health sector, misfortune will hound the poor," she says. 

With Pakistan currently ranking of 135th (out of a total of 178 countries) on United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index, the country faces formidable challenges when it comes to social indicators. "Pakistan spends half of what an average developing country does on health and education. Most developing countries spend, on an average, four per cent of their GDP on education and two per cent on health," reveals economist Asad Saeed. 

He adds that Pakistan spends two per cent on education and less than one per cent on health. At the same time, defence spending is twice that of a developing country's average: Pakistan spends close to five per cent; other developing countries average approximately 2.5 per cent. In fact, in its evaluation on Pakistan's 60th independence anniversary, the Asian Development Bank termed it a country with "poor governance, endemic corruption and social indicators that are among the worst in Asia".

"Politics doesn't interest me," says Nazia Perween, 19, temporarily working as a domestic help to pay for her bachelor's degree. "It doesn't provide me with three square meals. Nor is it helping me get an education," she states matter-of-factly. 

But, she adds, "Those who were democratically elected never fulfilled their promises. They are all corrupt and dishonest. Musharraf is the only ruler who has emphasized compulsory and free education for all, especially for girls and even provided an honorarium for them." She only wishes that he had made education free up to college level. 

In the port city of Karachi, the views are not very different. Shabana Bano, 38, is happy with the way things are despite the fact that, until a decade ago, she didn't have to work to supplement her husband's income. "Life has become expensive but there has been a decrease in robberies and dacoities." She laments that the honorarium of Rs 2,000 (US$1 = PKR60) promised to her older daughter by the government last year has still not been paid. "They call it free education, but the textbooks never come on time. So we end up buying everything. This happens every year." 

Despite the assertions of many an ordinary citizen that politics is not their cup of tea, it has nevertheless become a national obsession. Not only is it discussed threadbare in the living rooms of the rich and famous, the recent roller-coaster spate of events has, willy-nilly, involved everyone.

It all started with the suspension of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, the lawyer's movement and the CJP's subsequent reinstatement. A military operation in a mosque in Islamabad during which many innocent lives were lost; a spate of suicide bombings; and the government's incapacity to ward off the insurgency in areas bordering Afghanistan. All these have led to General Musharraf's popularity plummeting. Adding to the scenario were announcements by two former prime ministers, Sharif and Bhutto, of their imminent return to Pakistan. 

With elections slated for later this year, Pakistani politicians need to respond to many pertinent questions bothering the ordinary citizens - women included. Many wonder whether the leaders will truly mend their ways; whether the chasm between the rich and the poor will ever be bridged; whether voters will ever become active participants in the governance of the nation and whether...but then, is anyone listening?   

23-Sep-2007
More by :  ZofeenT Ebrahim
 
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