x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Reactions reflect a fractured society - but most are indifferent to elections

Domestic solutions to the nation's problems are a more pressing issue than who occupies the White House.

Lahore // Barack Obama's victory has been greeted in Pakistan with conflicting emotions: indifference among a disillusioned general public, guarded optimism within the business community and hope from the coalition government. These differences reflect the fractures within a society that still sees itself as split between rulers and the ruled - a consequence of four military dictatorships since Pakistan was founded in 1947, and the often despotic behaviour of elected prime ministers in between.

As in the United States, the mood of the Pakistani electorate has, over the past 21 months, swung away from historically well-entrenched political power centres - the proverbial establishment - and towards reformers proclaiming a conciliatory message. But for most Pakistanis, that commonality raises little hope of an equitable relationship between Islamabad and Washington. Instead, they link a recent surge in unilateral US military strikes inside Pakistani territory with pledges by Mr Obama, made during the Democrat Party primaries, to pursue key al Qa'eda and Taliban militants inside Pakistan when the government here was either unwilling or unable to do so.

"There is widespread public indifference towards the outcome of the US presidential election, because the feeling persists that there will only be a cosmetic change in policies toward Pakistan," said Habib Akram, bureau chief of Samaa TV, a popular cable news channel. That indifference has been reflected in surprisingly low audience ratings for extensive live TV coverage of the presidential election campaign. Geo News, easily the country's most viewed cable channel, launched a much-hyped campaign inviting viewers to "vote" for Mr Obama or John McCain via mobile phone text message. The network was taken aback by the poor response, according to producers, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Since the Feb 18 election of a coalition of secular democratic parties - and the subsequent fall from power of Gen Pervez Musharraf, a key post-9/11 ally of the United States - the public mood has, instead, been focused on finding domestic solutions for the political crisis facing Pakistan. There is scant deference to the priorities of the Pakistan government, particularly its economic reliance on US political support for international financial assistance, development funding and foreign investment.

"That is the big dilemma for Pakistan: the public wants one thing, the government does another. Maybe it's true for the government to say that we can't survive without US support; the public view is entirely different," Mr Akram said. The sullen indifference of the general public contrasts with the stark bitterness of Pakistan's influential community of industrialists - natural supporters of close relations with the United States - whose businesses have been rocked by the fallout of abortive incursions into Pakistan by US forces based in Afghanistan.

They have watched in dismay at the subsequent flight of capital from the country and drop of foreign exchange reserves to critical levels. But heightened US pressure on the newly elected government to weed out Taliban sympathisers from within the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, has sidelined a massive aid programme being steered through Congress by the vice president-elect, Joe Biden (in his capacity as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee). It has also meant an expected US bailout has not been forthcoming.

"The US incursions have caused economic chaos in Pakistan. Instead of aiding us, they have sent us packing off to the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and its harsh conditions. We are getting none of the carrot and all of the stick," said Munir Ahmed Khan, a businessman who is contesting elections at the Lahore chamber of commerce and industry. However, the business community remains quietly confident that the Obama administration will ultimately underwrite the economy to ensure the war with the Taliban does not further destabilise Pakistan and place into question the safety of its nuclear arsenal.

"This is not Iraq or Afghanistan. The US cannot afford for Pakistan to go bankrupt. If it does, and continues its military aggression, the government will be in a big soup, because the public will not tolerate it for much longer. Its policies will have to be driven by ground reality, not election trail rhetoric," Mr Khan said. Not surprisingly, the only quarter to welcome the election of a Democrat president is the Pakistan People's Party of Asif Ali Zardari, the president and widower of slain leader Benazir Bhutto. It leads coalitions in the federal government and two out of four provinces, and is the junior partner in the other two.

"The Republican administration has not been behaving because they are still with Pervez Musharraf," said the chairman of the PPP foreign liaison committee, also named Munir Ahmed Khan. "We expect the process of dialogue with the new Democrat presidency to be more transparent, and hope they will work to strengthen the system of parliamentary democracy within Pakistan," he said. thussain@thenational.ae