Glum Pakistanis want fresh faces in politics

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LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov 15 (Reuters) As the usual suspects of Pakistan's elite jostle for power amid the latest cyclical crisis, increasingly frustrated citizens such as guest house receptionist Mian Mazharullah say it's time for new blood in politics.

Many ordinary Pakistanis like him say they have lost hope in tried and tested leaders and think it's time for President Pervez Musharraf and his nemeses, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, to step aside.

''Life is so difficult because of all this political squabbling,'' Mazharullah said today, lamenting how a police lockdown of his native eastern city of Lahore to stifle protests by Bhutto supporters has kept customers away.

''The leaders don't focus on the needs of the people. What we care about are rising prices of food and goods, insecurity. I don't feel secure!'' the 32-year old added, recounting how he narrowly escaped a suicide attack on an army bus a fortnight ago.

Militant suicide attacks have mushroomed -- with 23 blasts killing about 400 people across Pakistan since July. Roadblocks and images of riot police wielding batons in Lahore have scared off Mazharullah's usual corporate guests.

While the economy has been growing at 7-8 per cent a year, prices of staples from rice to spices have risen at a similar rate, hitting hard the quarter of all Pakistanis -- about 40 million people -- who live below the poverty line.

''Pakistan is always beset by crisis,'' said 23-year-old Mohammad Zaid, studying water resource management at the University of Punjab, sitting on a curb watching police lay barbed wire barriers across a thoroughfare to head off a protest.

''The image of Pakistan is always destroyed around the world because of terrorism,'' he added. ''There should be a more positive political approach. We should be focusing on poverty and eradicating extremism.'' The United States had hoped Bhutto and Musharraf, seen as natural allies in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, would end up sharing power after national elections scheduled for January.

But the pair now have daggers drawn after Musharraf imposed emergency rule in an apparent bid to hold on to the presidency, suspended the constitution, locked up thousands of opposition figures -- including Bhutto -- and purged the Supreme Court.

RECURRING CRISES Many Pakistanis are fed up with the all too familiar political circus in a land that has been under military rule for more than half of the 60 years since it was born out of the partition of India.

Bhutto and Sharif -- who the government shunted into exile in Saudi Arabia -- were bitter rivals during the late 1980s and 1990s, alternating which each other as prime minister until Musharraf took power in a bloodless 1999 coup.

Both the former premiers have been dogged by corruption charges, which they dismiss as politically motivated.

''All of them are looters, they just fill their own pockets,'' said Abdullah Mohsin Elias, a television production company worker, sipping on a grape juice at a Lahore bakery.

''We have been isolated from the rest of the world. If Musharraf goes, it won't affect our lives. I'm against Benazir too,'' he added. ''Life is such a battle.'' It is ordinary Pakistanis who pay the highest price.

''Bhutto, Sharif, Musharraf -- they are all the same. What we want is real democracy,'' said Mazharullah. ''I have a two-year-old daughter. What sort of future lies ahead for her? I am very worried.'' REUTERS JT BD1335

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