New crop of Pak. lawmakers are richer, flashier and more secular
Islamabad (AP): Gold-trimmed SUVs idle outside the parliament. Among new female lawmakers, Muslim veils are out and Gucci bags are in.
Civilian rule has returned to Pakistan, and its politicians have come back with bling.
Last month's elections ushered into parliament a new crop of business leaders and wealthy elites opposed to U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf's one-man rule.
The new body is headed by followers of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto _ secularists who have vowed to fight Islamic extremism.
Many are also veterans of a series of civilian governments that nearly bankrupted the country in the 1990s.
Eight years after Musharraf took over in a military coup, they're back in power, accessories and all.
``It's their cars, their fashion. They have all the latest models,'' said Sana Asad, a Pakistani journalist covering parliament. ``They're richer and more secular.''
``Perhaps it's because they're connected to the previous administrations _ the wealthy elites,'' she said, sunning herself outside parliament's housing complex Wednesday.
Parliament's parking lot was crowded with new sports utility vehicles festooned with flashy tire rims and hood ornaments. Women in bright colors clogged past in heels and huge sunglasses. Bodyguards fanned out.
The Feb. 18 elections saw a hardline coalition of religious groups lose control of the country's northwest along the Afghan border. Also, many conservative-minded allies of Musharraf lost their seats.
In the last parliament, about a dozen female lawmakers from the religious alliance wore body-shrouding black veils that concealed everything except their eyes.
But as parliament elected its first female speaker Wednesday, just a single lawmaker _ one of 74 women in the 342-seat house _ covered her face with a light beige wrap. Others wore traditional flowing gowns, some with bare heads and others with their hair only partially covered by loose scarves.
Fehmida Mirza, a medical doctor, is the first woman elected as National Assembly speaker in Pakistan's 60-year history.
``It's a tremendous thing and something Pakistan can be proud of,'' said Nasim Zehra, a Pakistani analyst and fellow at Harvard University's Asia Center.
``There's a different texture in politics now. The orientation of this parliament is different, with a different kind of people with different backgrounds,'' she said.
On Wednesday, Khaled Mahmood Javed sat behind the tinted windows of a shiny sedan flying the flag of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.
His brother, Rai Ghulam Murtaza, is an incoming lawmaker who first served under Bhutto in the 1980s.
``A lot of them are businessmen, and none are poor. They're big men _ important men _ and they're less religious too,'' Javed said of the new breed of legislators.
Millions still live in poverty in this Islamic nation despite annual economic growth of about 7 percent for the past five years. Much of it was due to cash being sent home by Pakistani expatriates. Murtaza was one of them, his brother said.
``My brother lived abroad for the past 15 years. He's a dual citizen of Canada,'' Javed said proudly.
Many of Pakistan's top politicians are feudal landlords. Others amassed fortunes in Pakistan's booming banking and telecom sectors while they sat out politics under Musharraf.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a Bhutto loyalist and contender for prime minister, acknowledged that the lawmakers' ostentatious wealth could raise doubts about their commitment to solving the problems of ordinary Pakistanis.
``Austerity should be exercised, given the economic compulsions that we have,'' Qureshi told Dawn News television Tuesday. He said the country faced ``huge challenges,'' with high inflation and power shortages.
Economic hardships persist for most Pakistanis. The country has yet to fully overcome a severe shortage of wheat flour _ a staple here _ and fuel prices have spiked sharply in recent weeks.
Outside parliament Wednesday, policemen sat in clusters under small pine trees, watching new lawmakers parade past multicolored banners lining the drive up to the legislature's marble pillars.
``Rich candidates always do better. They have more connections,'' said one of the officers, lazily picking at wild dandelions. A policemen earns just over US$100 (euro63) a month.
``Islam doesn't allow women to unveil themselves, but the atmosphere in Pakistan is changing day by day. You can see it in the fashion here,'' he said, requesting anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to media.
``It's a bit of a charade, but it's also a big sign of democracy and hope,'' he said.