Violence flares as poll nears in Pakistan

Leaders of Pakistan’s opposition parties have been making frantic last-minute efforts to convince fearful voters to turn out in crucial parliamentary elections on Monday that may plunge the 164 million-strong nation into chaos.

As the last day of official campaigning in the most troubled contest for decades drew to a close on Saturday, no one was confident of a victory and many fear widespread unrest in the poll’s aftermath.

Continuing violence — more than 80 people have died in the past seven days — is scaring many voters. A suicide bomber on Saturday killed 37 people when he rammed his car into an independent candidate’s office in Parachinar, Pakistan’s volatile north-west border with Afghanistan.

Most of the victims were believed to be members of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, PPP, formerly headed by Benazir Bhutto, who had gathered at the candidate’s home after a rally.

There are huge concerns of widespread rigging by the government in order to counter a huge wave of sympathy for the assassinated Bhutto’s PPP, and growing support for the Pakistan Muslim League faction led by the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the PML (N).

In one of the key electoral battlegrounds, south of Punjab province, voters complained of threats from the police ”if they voted the wrong way”.

”They told us we will be arrested or have things charged against us if we vote for the PPP,” said one farmer in the village of Basti Hari.

Others spoke of being roughed up at rallies.

”This is very far from being a fair contest,” said Makhtoum Shahabuddin, the local PPP candidate and a former Finance Minister. Another local politician said that the ”law of the jungle” prevailed in the remote, arid rural area.

The charge of intimidation was denied by Shahabuddin’s opponent and cousin, Makhtoum Khusro Bakhtyar, the incumbent MP who represents the third major political party fighting the elections, the faction of the Pakistan Muslim League loyal to the government, the PML (Q).

Struggling to retain the loyalty of its MPs and an electorate angered by rising food prices and increasing insecurity, the party is seen as little more than a vehicle for President Pervez Musharraf, the army general who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and who has become deeply unpopular in the past year. Bakhtyar, however, was confident that his majority would not be overturned and that the vote would be fair.

”The losing party at every election claims polls were rigged,” he said. ”Sadly it has become almost a ritual in Pakistani politics. The elections will be free and honest. The voters will decide on the basis of our record in power and who they want to run the country in the future.”

But in nearby Khanpur, in a marginal constituency, Zaib Jaffar Chaudry, candidate for the opposition PML (N), said her supporters had also been harassed, beaten up by paramilitaries and threatened with false charges by police. Jaffar found four polling stations listed on election documents that did not exist, raising fears of manipulation, and claimed names of her supporters had been deleted from electoral rolls while the names of her opponents supporters appeared several times in the same district. ”It is very depressing,” Jaffar said. ”I am carrying on for my honour, for the name of my family and for the party.”

On Friday, the campaign group Human Rights Watch published an audio recording of Pakistan’s attorney-general, Malik Qayyum, who is known as a regime loyalist, apparently telling one politician the elections would be ”massively rigged”. He later claimed the tape was fabricated. The question of manipulation is crucial, as the polls pose a serious problem for the ruling party. If Musharraf’s PML (Q) does as badly as expected, the centrepiece of the coalition that the President had hoped to build will have collapsed, leaving two rival blocs, the PML (N) and the PPP dominant in parliament. Even with the extra seats coming from traditional allies among two dozen fringe parties, including some religious groupings, the President will be hard put to form a government without including one of his main enemies.

He may even be faced by a ”grand coalition” of the PML(N) and the PPP. Senior figures in both parties said on Saturday that such an arrangement, which would almost certainly lead to the removal and possible impeachment of the President, ”was under consideration”. Nor does Musharraf still have the army’s unequivocal support. The man who replaced the president as head of the Pakistani military late last year has ordered his soldiers to stay out of politics.

Even in remote villages, where farmers gather around single TV sets at the end of the day to watch the new and popular local language news talkshows, there is a sense of change in the air. ”The ground is slipping from under the president’s feet,” said Mohammed Akram Ali, a bicycle mechanic near Rahim Yar Khan. ”He is all washed up.” Around him, a dozen or so ragged agricultural workers complained about the rocketing price of basic foodstuffs. ”Flour and vegetables cost twice as much as they did a year ago,” said Rasheed Baksh, an unemployed 22-year-old.

The election campaign has been dominated by Bhutto’s assassination on December 27. When Makhtoum Shahabuddin, the PPP candidate near Rahim Yah Khan, arrived in villages for meetings he was greeted with cries of ”Jai Bhutto” (”Long live Bhutto”) while children snatched posters of the dead leader from the hands of campaign workers. Even in the northern and central Punjab, there has been a groundswell of support towards the PPP, with many who have not previously voted deciding to do so for the first time. ”I will do it for her memory,” said Ilyas Masih, a Christian taxi driver in Islamabad. One prediction by a local news magazine gave the PPP 111 of 272 seats in the National Assembly. A Gallup poll published on Friday night gave the PPP 35% of the vote.

The Bhutto effect has been particularly strong in the southern province of Sindh and the port city of Karachi, the commercial centre of the country. In Lyari, a poor suburb in the west of the city, the fight is between the PPP and a local party, the MQM. The latter’s candidate is Nadya Gabol, a Pakistani-born, British-raised, 28-year-old Manchester University criminology graduate. ”I was doing well until the assassination, but there is a really strong emotional sympathy vote,” Gabol, one of more than 50 female candidates standing this year, said. In the long term, the death of Bhutto may cause the PPP huge problems. Many oppose the leadership of Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, who took over as chairperson after his wife’s death pending the return to Pakistan of the couple’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal, and a split after the election is seen as inevitable.

”Her death is a disaster,” said Shahabuddin, a close friend of Bhutto. ”She was our rallying cry. She was our unity. And in this country’s politics family is everything.”

Others see reason for optimism. Samina Ahmed, director of the International Crisis Group, said the election showed that democracy was thriving in Pakistan. ”Politics everywhere is about a few very powerful people, even in fully developed democracies,” Ahmed said. ”In Pakistan there are two main blocs, which embody distinct and defined sets of values and with their own structures and constituencies. People are imbued with a democratic ethos. In every way, except for the ballot-rigging, it resembles a normal democracy.”

The parties

  • The Pakistan Muslim League (Q): breakaway faction from the country’s oldest party used as a political vehicle by President Pervez Musharraf, right. Led by Nawaz Sharif.

  • The Pakistan Muslim League (N): strong in the eastern province of Punjab, represents conservative, pious middle classes.

  • The Pakistan People’s Party: Benazir Bhutto’s party, founded by her father, strong in the rural south. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

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