Restlessness Among Pakistan's Youth. Students' economic and political frustrations mirror deep-rooted national problems
LAHORE, PAKISTAN — AFTER years of political suppression and economic neglect, Pakistan's students are restless. Campus discontent boiled to the surface in Lahore earlier this month during the first student elections in Pakistan since 1982. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto cleared the way for the poll by lifting a ban on student unions imposed by late military strong man Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Three students were killed in election violence.
The trouble, observers say, reflects the deep malaise that shadows Pakistan's campuses. Drug and gun use has spread, fueling rivalries among student groups armed and supported by political parties. As the nation's defense spending has grown, funding for schools and colleges has been inadequate, crippling the country's education system.
With thousands of Pakistanis returning from the dried-up oil boom in the Middle East, joblessness looms as an economic and political threat.
``Our biggest worry now is jobs,'' says Javed Rashid, a 20-year-old engineering student in Lahore. ``We need jobs, not more politics.''
The civilian government's struggle to rebuild a fragile democracy is closely linked to its efforts to tackle the mounting economic crisis. Ms. Bhutto has inherited an economy in which foreign aid, remittances from overseas Pakistanis, and monetary expansion for years masked serious problems.
Late last year, the International Monetary Fund announced it would provide Pakistan with an $830-million bailout. The deal, which locked Pakistan into a stringent program requiring government spending cuts and fiscal reform, reduces the Bhutto administration's room for maneuver.
A key test will come this June when Bhutto, who also serves as finance minister, presents her first budget. Checked by the military and bureaucracy, she could push for more independence with her own economic manifesto.
``This is a major area where Benazir could make her mark,'' says a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad. ``But there is still a lot of opposition to it.''
The task will be tough, observers say. On one hand, Bhutto is squeezed by the powerful military, whose defense budget consumes 39 percent of government spending and remains off-limits to politicians. On the other hand, her left-wing advisers are pushing for more social spending as a commitment to her lower-income supporters.
With inflation running at more than 10 percent, the middle class - for years buffered from hard times by the burgeoning black economy - is beginning to feel the pinch of higher prices for food and other essentials.
To meet the high costs of defense, the bureaucracy, and debt payments, the government usually cut corners in development programs. Now almost two-thirds of development funding comes from foreign sources.
``This country is making no capital investment in its future,'' a Western economist says. ``The education system is in ruins. Forests and agricultural lands are being decimated. And for the average Pakistani, whether he is riding the trains, using the roads, or trying to get a water supply, the situation is getting worse.''
Nowhere is this neglect more evident or politically dangerous than on the college campuses. Classes are frequently shut down by strikes or political disputes, exams are delayed, and absenteeism is high. The drug trade thrives among unemployed youth.
Unemployment is running at more than 10 percent and is much higher in some areas. There are long-term hopes that rebuilding war-torn Iran and Afghanistan could add jobs. But meanwhile, the corps of educated, disenchanted youth grows.
During the years of martial law, student groups were illicitly armed by political parties. As a result, weapons are widespread and even openly brandished on some campuses, students say.
`NOW there is the rule of Kalashnikovs among the students,'' says Ghulam Abbas, head of the student wing of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and a former Lahore student leader.
Political observers say the return of open politics and elections could defuse the pent-up frustrations among student groups. Still, there are signs that the student unions closely aligned with the political parties are mirroring national confrontations.
Recently in the crucial province of Punjab, Bhutto's main foe, Punjab Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif, faced an effort to oust him from office which was supported by Bhutto's party. The state government immediately called forstudent union elections at Punjab universities in what was widely seen as a threat by Mr. Sharif to bring his student supporters out into the streets.
In the past, students have proved to be potent political pawns. In 1969, rioting students calling for a return to democracy helped topple corrupt dictator Mohammad Ayub Khan.
Bhutto's party has backed down from the confrontation with Sharif and an uneasy truce prevails. But student unions are still bickering over the results of the campus poll. Meanwhile, well-organized fundamentalist groups now appear to have the upper hand in the large universities.
This is an issue that poses a continuing threat to Bhutto. Many Islamic fundamentalists challenge the right of a woman to lead the country.
``We will never never accept her in power,'' says a student member of the fundamentalist Islami Jamiat Tulaba. ``How can a woman deal with unemployment and the problems that face students?''