New Pakistani Lawmakers Flashier, Not Shy About Bling

Gold-trimmed SUVs idle outside parliament. Among new female lawmakers, black 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 slain 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 — an uneasy reminder of the graft accusations that hounded Bhutto and her husband, nicknamed "Mr. 10 Percent" for alleged kickbacks pocketed while his wife was in office.

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.

Parliament's parking lot was crowded Wednesday with new Mercedes and Toyota sports utility vehicles festooned with flashy tire rims and hood ornaments. Women in bright colors clogged past in heels and huge designer sunglasses. Bodyguards fanned out.

The Feb. 18 elections saw a hard-line coalition of religious groups lose control of the country's northwest along the Afghan border, and only six Islamists win seats in parliament, compared to 68 in the previous legislature. Many conservative-minded allies of Musharraf also 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.

Half a dozen other female lawmakers touched her shoulders as Mirza, wearing a diamond nose ring and an elegant lavender tunic embroidered with silver rosettes and a deep V-neck, rose to take her oath.

"We are writing a new chapter in history," she said, diamond-studded pearl droplet earrings and a pouf of dark hair springing out from under her sheer veil. She repeatedly touched her forehead in a gesture of thanks to her peers a thick gold bracelet sliding down her arm.

"Benazir's dream has come true," said fellow party member Farzana Raja. "We have proven we're not only chanting slogans for women's empowerment — we're taking practical steps," she said, shoving the designer sunglasses back on her head and letting her headscarf slip off.

Nasim Zehra, a Pakistani analyst and fellow at Harvard University's Asia Center, cited "a different texture in politics now."

"The orientation of this parliament is different, with a different kind of people with different backgrounds," Zehra said.

On Wednesday, many male lawmakers arrived in designer clothing, including one who accented his tailored black suit with a bright pink tie. There were notably fewer beards and traditional turbans than in the previous parliament.

In the parking lot, Khaled Mahmood Javed sat behind the tinted windows of his 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.

Pakistan has seen annual economic growth of about 7 percent for the past five years — much of it due to cash sent home by Pakistani expatriates. Murtaza was among 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.

Not everyone is amused.

Ameerul Azim, a spokesman for Pakistan's largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which along with all but one Islamist faction boycotted the February polls, called the new lawmakers' show of wealth "an insult to the poor people of Pakistan."

"These people today proved that they have no sympathy for the poor," he said.

Even Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a Bhutto loyalist and contender for prime minister, acknowledged the lawmakers' ostentatious display of the trappings of 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. Millions live in poverty despite the recent growth. 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 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 officer, lazily picking at wild dandelions. A policemen earns just over $100 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 speak to the media.

"It's a bit of a charade, but it's also a big sign of democracy and hope," he said.