By Yuri Prasad
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Pakistan’s economic crisis feeds food shortages and political tensions

Demonstrators in Pakistan push back against a continued economic crisis and ongoing political instability
Issue 2906
Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif making statements to the press, illustrating an article about Pakistan's economic crisis

Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif presiding over Pakistan’s economic crisis (picture: The Presidential Press and Information Office’s of Azerbaijan)

Vast protests over soaring electricity and flour prices in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir have forced the recently elected government into a major retreat.

Huge of people took to the streets for several days from Friday of last week in a protest movement initiated by small traders.

When attacked by the Rangers, the country’s paramilitary police, protesters fought back to avenge the dead and injured.

Three protesters and one cop were killed. Demonstrations closed all schools, public transport and shops—and angry groups built burning barricades.

After this, cops killed four protestors. Two of the campaigners died by shotgun wounds.

“[The rangers] should not have shot at the protesters. We were just asking for our rights and got bullet shots in return,” Muhammad Qasim, a 37-year-old shopkeeper, told the AFP newsagency.

As the number of marchers on their way to Muzaffarabad, the regional capital, grew to more than 500,000, authorities turned off the internet and ordered people off the streets.

But people in the towns and villages along the route turned out to give the marchers food and drinks, joining the chants against the government.

“I have never seen such a large scale uprising in Pakistan-administered Kashmir,” Mubashar Naqvi, a Muzaffarabad resident and a teacher at the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, told the New York Times newspaper.

“This protest is unique because it unites people from all walks of life in demanding basic necessities.”

Pakistan’s rulers worried that the fury in Kashmir could spread across the country and decided to cut a deal. Under instructions from the International Monetary Fund, which bankrolls the country, the government recently slashed subsides on electricity and foodstuff.

That caused prices to spiral, with many people unable to afford even small meals every day. And, as electricity prices soared, many were forced to live in darkness after the 7pm sunset.

But the government on Tuesday announced that it will increase subsidies by 24 billion rupees (£23 million). This will likely reduce electricity prices by 75 percent—­enough for the protest organisers to declare victory and end the demonstrations.

Yet for millions of Pakistanis the cost of living crisis remains, and inflation is rampant.

Some 700,000 people have lost their jobs in recent years as 1,600 clothing factories shut down. This amounts to about a third of the country’s textile factories. Many workers have been forced into piecemeal work and long hours just to survive.

“We used to somehow manage our daily expenses within 500 rupees (£4.70) a day. Now things have changed. To cook just one meal, we need 1,500 rupees,” Mr Maseeh told the BBC recently.

His wife added, “Our earnings are not enough even to provide a good meal. How can we afford to send our children to school?”

The economic crisis has fed into a wider political and societal one. A general election earlier this year saw former prime minister Imran Khan win a shock victory. However Khan is in jail, alongside other party leaders, and his PTI Party is banned.

Businessman and Pakistan Muslim League supporter Shehbaz Sharif became prime minister and formed a government.

But few people regard the new government as legitimate and the army remain on permanent stand by, ready to takeover should Sharif fail.

Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has been under military dictatorship for a total of 34 years. When not directly in power, the military elite bully civilian governments from behind the scenes.

No prime minister has ever completed a five-year tenure, but three out of four military dictators managed to rule for more than nine years each.

But the successful protests in Kashmir show that there is a power that can take on both the government and the military. If the fight of the poor was to spread across Pakistan it could make the country ungovernable and open the possibility of radical change.

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