Votes cast in the shadow of violence

President Pervez Musharraf’s leading lieutenants appeared to have lost their seats in early results in Monday’s Pakistani election, dealing a blow to the retired general’s hopes of clinging to power.

Musharraf’s former foreign minister, the president of his Pakistan Muslim League (Q) party and his candidate for prime minister all lost their seats in a rout that confirmed earlier indications that his political base had crumbled.

The results streaming in late on Monday night, based on informal tallies by television stations, were based on a minority of seats and had not been confirmed by the national election commission, which is considered partisan to Musharraf.

Still, it was clear that the country’s political landscape had altered.

Early winners included the Pakistan Muslim League (N) of the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was polling strongly in Punjab, and the Pakistan People’s party (PPP) of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, performing well in southern Sindh and parts of Punjab.

Others losers included the religious parties that have ruled North-West Frontier Province for the past five years. The first shock was the defeat of Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, the president of the PML (Q) in his hometown of Gujrat.

During polling earlier in the day the city was tense. In the early hours of voting the PPP candidate Ahmed Mukhtar zipped between polling stations accompanied by bodyguards bristling with weapons. His assistant, a more discreet man, packed a pistol in his waistband.

”People are scared,” said Mukhtar. ”But the immediate danger to me is that the Wajahat force will try to attack or humiliate me.”

The ”Wajahat force” was no obscure Islamist grouping but a rival gang of gunmen allied to Hussain, his main rival. Mukhtar said the muscle was necessary to stand up to Hussain, whose clan has dominated politics in Gujrat for decades. Over the past five years he held the PML (Q) together, giving Musharraf some democratic respectability.

At lunchtime Hussain was showing few signs of worry.

As Mukhtar raced around the town, trying to prevent ballot stuffing, Hussain was at home in his city centre mansion, watching TV.

On the lawn outside, dozens of armed police lounged on the grass under giant posters of Hussain, his sons and cousins. ”No Fear” was written on their tracksuits.

He chuckled at his opponent’s accusations of intimidation and rigging. ”You can go and ask anyone,” he said. ”The people in the rural areas support us. They know everything.”

The standoff mirrored a wider battle between Musharraf and the opposition. And, as elsewhere, the posturing did not come to blows. The vote may have been messy, small and uninspiring, but predictions of bloody mayhem were mercifully not realised.

On Monday night news agencies reported about 11 deaths through the voting, including a candidate shot dead in Lahore hours before polls opened and a woman who died in a local dispute near Gujrat. Relatively speaking, this was good news. Over the previous week 100 people died in a spate of bombings in North-West Frontier Province. But the Islamists blamed for those attacks remained quiet yesterday.

But the violence did take a toll. Voter turnout was low, probably less than the 45% of 2002. In Gujrat only a trickle of voters turned up in the early hours. Those who made it said they worried about violence.

”We came together, just to be on the safe side,” said Sher Muhammad Arshad, a photo shop owner and government supporter who arrived with his wife to cast their votes in a city central polling station just after 9am. Apathy also played a major role. After months of intrigues, assassinations and soaring food prices, voters were feeling crushed by the weight of their battered expectations.

”The thing is that people just don’t like the candidates. In fact they hate them,” said Professor Muhammad Ilyas, the returning officer at a deserted polling station in Gujrat. With just two hours until his polling station closed, turnout had hit just 30%.

”The candidates never keep their promises. They are not people of their word. Everyone knows it,” he said. Five policemen clustered around his table nodded silently.

That level of disillusionment will be a challenge for the next government, whoever forms it.

Having promised ”the mother of all elections” Musharraf sounded a conciliatory note after voting in Rawalpindi, calling for ”national reconciliation”.Earlier he had offered to act as a ”father figure” to the next prime minister.

Hours later Sheikh Rashid, a former information minister and confidante of the president, and Khurshid Kasuri, a former foreign minister, lost their seats, according to television reports. Tariq Azeem, a spokesperson for Musharraf’s party, admitted a ”losing trend” and said the PML (Q) would sit in opposition if necessary.

But the majority of seats were yet to be declared and the opposition has threatened mass protests if it feels cheated. Almost half a million police and soldiers were on standby. Final results are due later on Tuesday. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

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