Protesters burn electricity bills in protest at rising prices in Pakistan

Protests over huge hikes in electricity prices are gripping Pakistan. On the streets there is a mixture of despair and rage as the poorest people try to work out how they will survive new rounds of bills and provide food for their families.  

Shops and businesses closed in a traders’ strike last week, and on demonstrations across the country people publicly burnt their bills.  

Kaneez Fatima is a widow trying to provide for four children. She told the Al Jazeera news site that she will eat bread and tea for dinner, cooked on a fire of twigs, rather than a powered stove.  

Now she fears rising bills could tip her family into starvation. “See this?” she says, holding up her new electricity bill. “I got this bill for £50, but I only earn £38 per month.  

“I have only one fan and two energy-saving bulbs. How can the bill be so high? I hardly earn enough to provide food for my children. If I pay this bill,  how will I feed them?  

“I have no other option left but to kill myself and my children.”  

If harm does come to Kaneez and her family, the responsibility will lie with the bankers of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and its lackeys in the Pakistani ruling class.  

The country narrowly avoided a default on its debts in June which would have made it impossible to import goods and borrow money. It was “saved” by a last-minute £2.4 billion loan deal with the IMF.  

But in return, bankers demanded economic “reforms”, including cutting energy subsidies and imposing taxes on fuel and power.  

These measures, combined with a rupee weakened by Western policies of high interest rates, caused consumer electricity bills to as much as double in July.  

Protests have piled pressure on the caretaker government of Anwar ul Haq Kakar. But the IMF stands ready to punish any relief he grants.  

Cutting electricity tariffs would “immediately spark a new crisis with the IMF”, a senior government official told the Financial Times newspaper this week. It would likely result in the suspension of the fund’s loan and put Pakistan back at risk of a default on its foreign payments, he said.  

During the past 18 months, Pakistan has descended into one of the worst economic meltdowns in its history. Year-on-year inflation soared to 28 percent in July. And foreign currency reserves fell to a low of £3 billion—less than what’s needed to pay for a month’s worth of imports.  

The country’s ruling class now fears that anger at the failing economy could fuse with growing political turmoil.  

The government has already pushed back elections that should have been held by this autumn at the latest. And it has tried to rig any future contest by ensuring Imran Khan and his PTI party are unable to stand.   

Khan, the country’s most popular politician, was recently sentenced to three years in prison for corruption. That would have ruled him out of the contest but for the decision of another court to suspend the sentence.  

The Muslim League-Nawaz party and Pakistan’s military elite are determined to keep Khan’s PTI down, but the new wave of electricity protests could be their undoing.  

Khan’s popularity among the lower middle classes and the poor remains strong because his rhetoric centres on themes of social justice, welfare and anti-imperialism.  

In office, the PTI did little to justify voters’ enthusiasm, but enough to upset the US.  

Washington has long regarded Pakistan as “its territory”. From here it could conduct a “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and in the borderlands—and more lately, bat away its Chinese rivals.  

Recent revelations of secret cables show the US state department demanded Khan’s removal as prime minister. The move came just weeks before his parliamentary alliance fell apart and he suffered a vote of no confidence.  

This combination of economic meltdown and anger on the streets—and a political system widely viewed as corrupt—is a recipe for a revolt that can send shivers down the spine of all sections of the ruling class.  

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