Pakistani merchants rue price rises and politics

With no customers in sight at his bazaar jeans stall, 23-year-old Mohammad Asad Khan is sick of political turbulence in Pakistan that he says is ruining his business.In this market in the eastern city of Lahore, traders blame President Pervez Musharraf for their struggle to make ends meet and doubt a January general election will make life easier.

They want a return to the political stability shattered in March when Musharraf sacked the country’s top judge, setting off a storm of opposition, and a halt to rising prices that eat into margins and scare off clients.

“I haven’t sold a single pair in three days,” said Khan, standing by stacks of counterfeit Versace, Boss and Diesel jeans as other people headed to mosques for Friday prayers.

“The instability, the emergency — people don’t want to spend the money they have got.”

“I have overheads. Rent, staff salaries. I’m actually losing money. I’m seriously thinking I should stop this business and turn to crime, to looting,” he added, waving his fingers like an imaginary pistol. “With a gun, no one will stand up to you.”

Khan blames the three kingpins of Pakistani politics, Musharraf and former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, for his business troubles.

He says he will boycott a January 8 election even if the opposition leaders up in arms at emergency rule do not.

Fellow traders and customers at the Anarkali bazaar, named after an ancient Mughal prince’s lover, all voice the same complaint: prices have risen sharply, business is down and take home pay has fallen.

“The Pakistani people don’t like Musharraf, he has taken so many steps against the people. The public don’t want him any more,” said Amjad Feraj, 24.

NO HOPE

Pakistan’s economy has grown at about 7 percent a year since 2004, but inflation has run at the same rate or higher. Analysts blame rising international food and oil prices, not political instability, despite the wide-held perception.

“There is a huge impact on our business,” says Mohammad Farooq, as he deep fries pakoras — a snack made from vegetables coated in batter. Flies swarm over fried fish and chicken stacked nearty in vast metal pans.

“Chicken used to cost 40 rupees (60 U.S. cents) a kilo. Now it’s 90 ($1.30), just a year or two later,” he complained.

“It’s all because of the ruler of this country. Musharraf doesn’t care about the poor.”

Farooq’s sales have fallen 20 percent in the last year. If he is lucky his four-person business might make 1,000-2,000 rupees ($16-$32) profit a day.

“Prices have basically increased 100 percent,” said income tax inspector Imtiaz Ahmed, buying a solitary cucumber and a couple of tomatoes from a nearby vendor.

“Raw material prices are going up because of petrol and instability,” he added. “We are living hand to mouth. Dictators don’t care about the people.”

($1 = 61.24 rupees)

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