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Pakistan's Soap Opera Politics

Bano, a mother of five who lives in the ancient quarter of Lahore—the cultural center—was without power for days. She wanted to make goat stew, a family favorite and a dish that can take hours to prepare. So that morning, Bano built a makeshift stove with wood and charcoal to cook.

“I was all black. My hands were stained, and my clothes smelled of smoke." she said. “But down the street, the rich lady with a generator has electricity. The rest of us suffer because we can't afford such luxury,”

Planned rolling blackouts, which Pakistanis call 'load shedding,' are sanctioned by the government of Pakistan to save electricity and money for a bulging population. The blackouts pose a problem for Bano, who is a widow, as she is responsible for four sons and a daughter.

"Every day, I have to feed my family," she said.  

It is a familiar story of families barely getting by. Bano's daily struggle with power is emblematic of the politics inside Pakistan, a country of reality-show-like politics that keeps its citizens wondering how they will survive another day. And if and when an election will take place. Or when the lights will come on.

Lately, Pakistanis are grappling with power crises, political paralysis, and precarious partnerships with the West. As a senior Pakistan instructor for the US government, I see students consumed with the larger-than-life question: Will Pakistan survive another democratic day? What will Pakistan look like in 2014? (The question is carefully chosen by insiders obsessed with Pakistan's future when U.S. military troops pull out of Afghanistan).

And while economic and energy crises continue, so has the political backbiting and bickering in Pakistan. Earlier this spring, former Pakistan Ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani, who is a Pakistan People’s Party loyalist, was taken to court for the “Memogate” scandal—a trail of messages that suggest Haqqani had knowledge of the civilian government’s alleged intentions to topple an autocratic army. The scandal forced Haqqani’s resignation. His wife, Pakistani Parliamentarian Farahnaz Ispahani, wrote in The Washington Post, “My husband’s case is not simply that of an individual who has been wrongly accused and denied due process. It is part of a broader issue: the systematic elimination or marginalization of every intellectual and leader in Pakistan who has stood up to the institutionalization of a militarized Islamist state."

Discord between the military and civilian elite is a common narrative in Pakistan. And so is the uneasy U.S.-Pakistan partnership. This week, at a nuclear summit held in Seoul, U.S. President Obama met with Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousef Gilani to reassure Islamabad of America's commitment to Pakistan, "the gift that keeps on giving," noted a senior defense official. The message is unchanged: the U.S. is convinced that Pakistan plays a significant strategic role in America's interests in Afghanistan (read "winning the war on terrorism"). And Pakistan needs money. Period.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan story of military might and democratic demagogues divert attention away from everyday issues. The mother in Lahore still has no regular source of power. Millions live below the poverty line. And the Prime Minister is trapped in an endless debate about whether Pakistan can ever be a real democracy.

In the West, as an outsider looking in, it is easy to ask if Pakistan's politicians are irrepressible, irresponsible or in charge of challenges at home and abroad? On the U.S.-Pakistan question, TIME's Fareed Zakaria offers a stunningly pointed phrase to describe the relationship-- "friends without benefits." He wrote, “It is time to recognize that the U.S.’s Pakistan policy is just not working. I write this as someone who has consistently supported engaging with the Pakistani government as the best of bad options. But the evidence that this engagement is working is thin—and gets thinner with every passing month." Zakaria’s bleak assessment forces US government policy analysts, collectors, and operators to rethink the way forward with a broken country.

What’s next for Pakistan is the most resounding question that my students seek clarity to. And the answer is not as simple as turning to the cricketeer-cum-politician Imran Khan, whose party Tehreek-e-Insaaf , pledges to turn the tide. Khan promises to push politicians into a corner, holding them—and the U.S.—accountable for the perils of Pakistan. The timing may be right for Khan to step into the political limelight and seize-the-day in 2014, Pakistan's presumed election year.

But Khan is no seasoned politician or a spectacular speaker. What he does have is a vision and a voice. Moazzam Ali, the former head of Pakistan’s Lawyers Association in Punjab told me, “Khan is not a great orator, but he may be Pakistanis only chance to save the country.”

Like most politicians anywhere, Khan is an opportunist. Some party  leaders have joined hands with the hope that if he wins, Khan has a chance to deliver. He will have the political clout to make matters right with India. And Afghanistan. What Khan can not afford to do is neglect Washington’s unending support over the past decade. The U.S.-Pakistan alliance, though untidy and unyielding, cannot be easily severed.

Coming back-to-the-future question of Pakistan in 2014. It will survive. And like it or not, politics in Pakistan will be a show that the world will keep watching to keep the country moving forward.

Photo credit: Farhana Qazi

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