Pakistanis caught between poverty and politics

Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule has left Pakistanis uneasy - but many are more worried whe

For ordinary Pakistanis it's been business as usual this week, despite the declaration of a state of emergency - virtual martial law - by the military government of President General Pervez Musharraf.

While pockets of civil unrest across the country and looming uncertainty about the future have contributed to an overall sense of unease, that is something the people of Pakistan have grown used to.

There is a strong police presence on the streets of Karachi with teams in armoured cars stationed at traditional rallying points like the Karachi Press Club to suppress any protests.

But most people remain unaffected by Musharraf's latest moves to consolidate power and underwhelmed by the political maneuverings of rival players such as the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan.

Most people had grown apathetic to the country's political problems, some residents said. One Karachi-based journalist said Pakistan was cursed with bad fortune.

The country has experienced so many failed political leaders in the past many doubt whether any shift in power will lead to positive change.

M. Naim-ur-Rahman, a Karachi based lawyer, echoed this perspective, saying it was unrealistic to expect people to participate in the political process when so many of them don't know where their next meal would come from. He added that democracy wasn't necessarily a perfect fit for Pakistan right now.

"Democracy only works in developed countries because that's the only place where the [average] citizen can demand accountability [from leaders]," Rahman said, adding that he supported Musharraf in spirit, praising infrastructural developments in Karachi, a city largely ignored by previous leaders.

But Rahman also criticized the leader's actions, saying that even though he was a patriot whose "heart is in the right place, he is not advised properly to fully understand his decisions."

Musharraf announced a three-pronged solution to stabilize what he saw as a country on the brink of chaos, suppressing the judiciary, media and violent extremists.

So far, the full force of emergency powers given to military and police personnel have only come down on lawyers and journalists.

Some Karachi residents are predicting a possible incursion by military forces into Balochistan and the tribal regions of the North West Frontier Province. Others say Pakistani soldiers are tired of attacking fellow Muslims and no longer have the will to fight. Many of those arrested have been released, according to reports.

"The one thing that is certain is that Pakistan is living on a prayer," said one Karachi cab driver. He added that all the forces that were pulling the country in different directions would have torn it apart by now, but for the grace of god.

But there is a growing fear among Pakistanis that the country is headed for a split and could very well be divided along provincial lines. And while many believe "Musharraf is sincere for Pakistan" and the right man to hold the country together, they are also unwilling to excuse his suppression of fundamental human rights.

In Karachi, public sentiment is shifting away from Musharraf as people begin to feel stifled by the government clamp down.

"This clamp down… you're hitting a small mouse with a tank," said Akbar Zaidi, a Karachi-based independent economist.

Zaidi said that the government had gone too far in its measures to suppress what in reality had amounted to mild dissent - and that protests had not been as substantial as opposition parties had been hoping for.

"This is a totally out of proportion response," he added. "[The government] messed it up."

When the emergency was declared, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority made the isolating move of blocking private news television channels indefinitely. Karachi residents turned to satellite television for the news and reports say there was a dramatic spike in the sales of satellite dishes and decoders over a three-day period.

This led to a police crackdown on dealers at the city's largest electronics market on Thursday. Some international channels have been unblocked since.

People are also concerned about the economic impact of continued instability with the price of sundry goods rising almost exponentially and after a rumor that Musharraf had been overthrown and placed under house arrest brought the stock market to it's knees. With poverty still a major problem in Pakistan and most pronounced in urban areas like Karachi, for many Pakistanis, the political turmoil in the country is background noise to rumbling stomachs.

"Those who are with money are always fine," said one city resident.
"Those who are without money are as good as dead."

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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