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Polls and power

There is of course a multitude of factors that formulate the final report card of an outgoing government; the status of the economy, security, development of sectors, fulfilment of pre-election promises, foreign relations, etc. However, the events of the past half a century or so have revealed that there is one particular subject in which a poor grade could be the definitive curtain call on a government’s chances of re-election: energy management. And, quite clearly, this doesn’t bode too well for the previous government’s prospects in our neck of the woods, come May.

This would be the first opportunity for the masses in Pakistan to give their verdict on a report card that has a wretched score in energy management bulging out of it. And if recent world history is anything to go by, the masses shouldn’t really be too kind.

The US energy crisis of the 1970s is a classic example of voters’ retaliation to escalating oil and gas prices, as Richard Nixon discovered following the embargo of 1973-74 and Jimmy Carter found out in 1980, after 1979’s gas crisis much to Ronald Regan’s delight.

The French right wing had to bear the brunt of the energy crisis that began in 1974, as Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist Party became the first leftist party to take over the French political helm in 1981. Argentinean president Fernando de la Rua had to resign two years into his tenure following a colossal fiscal fix that virtually destroyed the country’s energy sector and led to the infamous December Revolts in 2001.

The 2008 Bulgarian energy crisis ousted Bulgaria’s largest political party ‘Bulgarian Socialist Party’ and replaced it with Boyko Borisov’s then newly created personalistic party GERB ‘Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria’.

The fact that the David Cameron-led Conservatives won their first election in 18 years in 2010 also owed a lot to the growing concerns in 2008-09 that the UK is all set for an energy crisis and power outages a la South Africa, due to the reduction in coal power stations and refusal to set up adequate replacements. And then you have the example of Indira Gandhi whose popularity took a slight dip in the mid 1970s after 1973’s energy crisis, which when coupled with a political crisis at the same time became the principal factor in Gandhi making the president declare emergency in 1975 and conjuring the twenty-point programme of economic measures.

These are just a few examples among many others, where energy predicaments of varying proportions have led to governments and politicians being given the proverbial boot. Therefore, if these precedents are anything to go by, the Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) quest of returning to power has been dealt a prodigious blow.

Energy shortage in recent years has cost Pakistan around four percent of the GDP. It has also resulted in the closure of many industries, in turn further exacerbating unemployment and aggravating the economic outlook. Furthermore, the shortfall of electricity touched its zenith in June last year, striking 40 percent of the national demand.

Add the fact that the two most promising steps towards overcoming the energy quandary – the inauguration of the Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline, and the Petroleum Policy 2012 – came a little too late for them to have any tangible impact, and the PPP-led government’s performance on the energy front looks all the more despondent.

Energy crises almost always have a political and diplomatic side plot, pumping more misery into the issue. Nixon bit the dust owing to his support for Israel in the Arab-Israel conflict of 1973 that resulted in an Opec embargo, which saw gas stations being banned from selling gas even on Sundays to add to the rationing.

For Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the over-exuberant involvement in Mauritania and Central African Republic, as the masses suffered a mammoth energy crisis back home in the mid and late 1970s, was a massive factor in his popularity taking a nosedive in France. In Bulgaria Borisov, who took over the helm owing to the energy crisis in 2009, had to resign in 2013 primarily because of the same reason. And Sofia’s problem with power owed a lot to apprehensions regarding the Bulgaria-Czech Republic relations.

Of course failure to explore their own energy resources has been a factor virtually across the board, most notably in the case of Indira Gandhi. Since the years preceding the Indian energy crisis saw cheap oil easily available in the market, Gandhi never showed any urgency to unearth India’s own oil resources, while the coal mining sector was also neglected. Looking at these examples, it is quite evident that the outgoing government has managed to tick all the wrong boxes.

While the masses queued up in hordes for CNG, endured up to 20 hours a day of power outages and suffered gas loadshedding, the government kept dilly-dallying over gas pipelines and hydropower projects. While security concerns deterred international exploration and production companies, the government waited till its second petroleum policy announcement to adjust the production price. And while the sixth largest reserves in the world at Thar lay in the wait, the government and the stakeholders were busy raking each other over the coals.

The average citizen might not be familiar with party manifestos, fiscal numbers or the nation’s foreign relations, but they are the first one to feel the heat of extended power outages, infinite queues and hefty gas and electricity bills. And so it should come as no big surprise if many of them decide to go the polls to vent their frustration.

The writer is a Lahore-based journalist. Email: khulduneshahid@gmail.com; Twitter: @khuldune

Khuldune Shahid, "Polls and power," The News. 2013-04-24.
Keywords: Petroleum policy-2012 , Government-Pakistan , International relations , International issues , Electricity crisis , National issues , Unemployment , Elections , Gas , Jimmy Carter , David Cameron , Indira Gandhi , Francois Mitterrand , Richard Nixon , Pakistan , United States , Africa , Iran , PPP , GDP , CNG , GERB