A crowd has gathered around Sitara Begum. With sarcasm and desperation, she pronounces that she will give her vote in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections to anyone who can give her a portion of clarified cooking butter. Onlookers laugh, not mocking but commiserating.
The election campaign is now getting under way in earnest, with slain leader Benazir Bhutto's party planning its first campaign rally Saturday, now that the 40-day ritual mourning period has ended. But as the world worries about terrorism, across Pakistan that fear is mixed with other, more basic concerns: how to afford dinner or stay warm amid inflation and hours-long power outages.
These are the issues – largely overlooked outside Pakistan – that are perhaps most likely to motivate Pakistanis on election day. Interviews here as well as opinion polls suggest that Pakistanis want new leadership. While they have no great hope that anyone else is the solution, they agree it is time to give someone other than President Pervez Musharraf and his allies a chance.
"Because of the high prices of commodities, people have changed their priorities and want to vote for some other party," says Mohammed Akram, standing in front of the government store, wrapped in a red checkered scarf to ward off the cold. "This government has cast off the poor."
The discontent hints at what could become Musharraf's next crisis. As president, he is not competing in these elections. But the parliamentary allies that have ruled alongside him for the past five years could take the brunt of the public's anger, and if they are the big losers Feb. 18 – as many experts predict – that would leave Musharraf without support in a hostile parliament.
For example, if the major opposition parties – Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – combine to win more than two-thirds of the seats, they could try to sideline Musharraf or perhaps even remove him from office. This would be Musharraf's greatest incentive to tamper with the election results, experts say, to give himself some political cover or even to propel his supporters in the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) to victory.
PML-Q leaders say they have strong support in the rural areas of Pakistan's most populous and powerful state, Punjab. They say they can win 100 of 272 seats being contested in these polls – or 36 percent – enough to make them essentially the winners, given the number of parties contesting.
"PML-Q thinks that [Musharraf] is supportive of their top leadership, so they have mutual support for each other," says Talat Masood, a former Army general who is now an independent analyst in Islamabad.
But many analysts refute the party's optimism and say its strategy is a convenient one. Rural Punjab would be the easiest place to rig elections, where the writ of the current government is strongest, says Shafqay Mahmood, a columnist for The News, a national newspaper.
Flour, fuel are harder to get
On the streets of Lahore, many Pakistanis blame the government for the mounting problems. Shortages of staples like flour have led to nearly 9 percent inflation in the past year, and – in some cases – hour-long lines at government-subsidized Utility Stores like the one Ms. Begum has just left, empty-handed. In some rural areas, power outages last for 18 hours a day.
Security has deteriorated dramatically. The number of bombings has risen in recent months, and many Pakistanis believe Musharraf's government was at worst complicit and at best negligent in the Dec. 27 assassination of Ms. Bhutto. Two suspects were arrested Thursday, bringing the total number of suspects to four, and a British commission that helped investigate the killing is expected to release a report on its findings Friday.
Together, these concerns have turned many Pakistanis against Musharraf. A Gallup Pakistan poll released last month found that 68 percent of respondents wanted the president to resign.
"Commodities are out of range of the common person," says Mohammed Saeed as he loads a scooter with bags of rice outside the Utility Store, a government subsidized outlet. "I accuse the government of these price hikes."
His is a common complaint here. While free-market reforms have brought enormous investment in the stock market, building a new middle class, the poor have been pinched. Pakistan's domestic industries, such as textiles and agriculture, have not been able to compete in an open global marketplace. This had played a part in double-digit food-price inflation over the past three years. The cost of food and drink rose 12.2 percent in December compared with the previous year. Fuel for auto rickshaws and taxis is going at twice the government-approved rate of about 50 cents a pound.
"The problem is with the government," says Mohammed Ahmed, waiting for a government store to open. "From short supply the people have to suffer." A September survey conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that 70 percent of Pakistanis polled felt the economy was "on the wrong track."
To be sure, some Pakistanis have prospered under Musharraf's economic liberalization and its 7-plus percent annual economic growth. "Elite businessmen who have benefited from his regime are undoubtedly supportive of him," says Mr. Masood, the analyst.
But across the country, near the unsettled tribal areas, some suggest that inflation could even be fueling the insurgency. Imraz Khan sits on an earthen wall in Peshawar, drawing a link between the growing sense of economic despair and willingness to join forces against the government. "Things will get better if Musharraf steps down and there is a new government," he says. "As inflation has gotten worse, law and order has gotten worse. They are connected."
• Ghulam Dastageer contributed to this report from Peshawar.