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Election Outlook-IX: Power politics

That electricity expansion always proves popular in the context of developing and least developed countries in particular is a strong reality that has found its best expression in a war-ravaged Afghanistan. According to a latest US Congressional research, for example, “severe power shortages in Kabul caused in part by the swelling Kabul’s population to 4 million, have become fewer due to the Afghan government’s agreements with several Central Asian neighbours to import electricity, as well as construction of new substations. Russia has refurbished some long dormant hydroelectric projects in Afghanistan that were suspended when Soviet troops withdrew in 1989. Kabul is generally lit up at night.”

How ironic, however, it is that almost all small or major towns of Punjab, including capital Lahore, are found drowned in pitch depressed darkness with hardly any business activity of any significance. The PPP has been found to be defenceless against electricity-related attacks. “Unfortunately, we failed. We failed to overcome loadshedding despite our best efforts,” admits former Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf at his hometown Gojar Khan where his electoral prospects seem to have received a sudden boost following some serious bickering in the PML-N camp over the award of party ticket to a “highly controversial” candidate for May 11 general election.

Power outages have taken centre stage in the manifestos of all major political parties. The PML-N has been using chronic loadshedding as the most effective ammunition against the outgoing PPP-led coalition. The aggravating power crisis seems to have been exacting its toll on the PPP electoral prospects in Punjab in particular.

Unfortunately, however, PML-N’s strong emphasis on electricity expansion appears to be aimed more at grabbing people’s attention to its broadsides against its rival PPP than offering even some broader contours of a concrete plan to end power outages that have badly hurt country’s economic growth and profoundly contributed to the spectre of joblessness. For example, his brother and former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif has provided a golden opportunity to PPP to successfully point out – through a string of television ads – inconsistencies in his speeches with regard to power crisis and the ways and means to resolve it. He has been found prescribing different time-frames at his encounters with people at different places. He vows to end this crisis within six months at one rally and extends that deadline by 18 months at another public meeting. Somewhere else, he exhibits strong optimism in his ability to end loadshedding “within three years.” Although elections require politicians to behave in an exaggerated way to attract people’s attention, the articulation of the “would-be water and power minister” Shahbaz’s theory gives birth to serious doubts about the resolution of energy crisis in short- or medium-term.

Recently, though, Nawaz Sharif has been found to be quite careful in this regard. According to him, the resolution of crisis will take three to five years to essentially cause industries and other businesses to flourish. He also knows well that the present 5,000MW power deficit will dangerously widen in coming months and years mainly because of rising demand and stunted ability to generate power through river flows and fossil fuels. Plugging this shortfall will require massive generation of power and therefore massive investment. Persuading foreign investors to commit capital to energy sector in a low insurgency-hit Pakistan will not be an easy task. Speaking to party workers at his Raiwind residence this weekend, Nawaz expressed his confidence that he would bring in the required investment if came to power. It is not known whether or not he’s aware of the fact that governments of various countries have increasingly shifted the responsibility of financing investment in power generation away from state-owned entities to private investors. The judicial interventions, however pious and warranted, in the cases of Pakistan Steel Mills and Reko Diq project have, unfortunately, sent some wrong messages abroad. Nawaz will be urgently required to restore investor confidence in an effective and meaningful way.

Nawaz has vowed to bring to an end the swelling circular debt, particularly the energy sector debt. But it is not known whether or not he intends to introduce policies and leave their implementation to Nepra, and pricing to market players and dynamics, with a view to ending the scourge of untargeted power subsidy. He would also be required to create a winning sale pitch in relation to Independent Power Producers (IPPs), which have been increasingly doubting government’s ability to make timely payments to them. Their uneasiness which often translates into threats of invoking sovereign guarantees is a case in point.

There is no denying that security issue has a clear precedence over every other issue or challenge in any society. But an end to the five-year-old spell of economic slowdown is no less important for a country like Pakistan. That the required power generation is critical to spurring the required economic growth and creating two million or more new job opportunities every year to effectively reduce economic and social tensions is a challenge that will test the ability of the next government in a profound manner. Last but not least, the PPP has strongly linked its electoral success to Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), which is said to be aimed at covering 18 percent of country’s population and 40 percent of people below poverty line. There is little doubt that this mega social sector program has turned out to be a huge success story particularly in the context of rural Pakistan. But the question whether this success will be sufficiently adequate for PPP to successfully insulate it against the prospect of suffering defeat in rural areas will find a perfectly plausible answer on May 11.

-This was the ninth part of multi-part series “Election Outlook”. The next part of this series “Zardari is PPP and PPP is Zardari?” will be carried by the newspaper shortly. The writer is newspaper’s News Editor. He previously worked for various publications, including Daily Times, Dawn and Khaleej Times, on different positions. (news.editor@br-mail.com)

Sarfaraz Ahmed, "Election Outlook-IX: Power politics," Business recorder. 2013-05-06.
Keywords: Political issues , Political process , Political parties , Political leaders , Political problems , Political change , Elections 2013 , Pakistan , BISP