ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Eight weeks after Benazir Bhutto was slain, Pakistan is holding elections that could shepherd a troubled nation into a new era of civilian rule and gird it against the Islamic extremists suspected of her killing.
Yet Monday’s vote also heralds uncertainty. A vote rigged in favor of the unpopular government could spark violent unrest, while an opposition landslide would set up a showdown with President Pervez Musharraf, Washington’s key ally in the war on terrorism.
Public disenchantment after eight years of military rule, and sympathy for Bhutto who was assassinated in a Dec. 27 suicide attack, look set to propel her opposition Pakistan People’s Party to victory, although her successor as party leader, husband Asif Ali Zardari, has been tainted by corruption allegations.
Opinion polls give second place to the party of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whose government was toppled in Musharraf’s 1999 coup.
The pro-Musharraf party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, is running a distant third, its unpopularity compounded by sharply rising food prices and power outages. Its ratings have plummeted with Musharraf’s as he has maneuvered to stay in power through an explosion of Taliban militancy.
Monday’s elections are taking place against a backdrop of rising Islamic militancy throughout Pakistan, and many candidates have been discouraged from holding large rallies. Security fears are highest in lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border.
On Saturday, a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into an independent parliament candidate’s election office in northwest Pakistan, killing 37 people and wounding more than 90. The candidate targeted, Syed Riaz Hussain, was unharmed. Hussain is backed by the opposition PPP formerly led by Bhutto.
Bhutto’s slaying robbed Pakistan of a national icon and its most powerful advocate for democracy. Legions of the rural poor she championed have paid homage at her tomb, while the intellectual elite have reflected on whether her death endangers the future of the state.
Now, rather than stabilizing Pakistan, the election may result in more political disarray.
“What Pakistan may get is a messy coalition distracted by its own internal pressures, vying with the president and army chief for real power, and failing to deal effectively with the major challenges confronting it,” said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, South Asia expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
While Musharraf’s own position as president is not being contested, a two-thirds opposition majority in the 342-seat National Assembly would leave him vulnerable to impeachment for declaring emergency rule in November and sacking Supreme Court judges who could have nullified his recent re-election for a new five-year term.
This has heightened expectations that his government could rig the vote to favor the ruling PML-Q, though analysts think the rigging will be limited by the international scrutiny this election has attracted, and by rapidly expanding private media.
“It’s not going to be so easy to rig in a big way without losing the election altogether, meaning without provoking a huge backlash and a boycott (of Parliament) later,” said Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times newspaper. “I don’t think they’d be foolish enough to do that.”
Pakistan has rarely had a smooth transfer of power in its 60-year history. An electorate that ranges from Western-educated urbanites to villagers beholden to feudal lords have voted in civilian governments only to see them discredited by graft allegations and toppled by the military.
Although Islamic violence dominates the headlines from Pakistan, Muslim parties are a minor factor in the election, strong only in the northwest, and even there their electoral clout is waning under a backlash from moderate public opinion.
Musharraf has promised the 80 million voters a free and fair election. But his assertions that Pakistan must “tailor” democracy to its own environment casts doubts over that commitment.
Musharraf has condemned recent opinion polls by U.S. groups that were unfavorable to him and the PML-Q as “playing with the peace of the world.”
Under pressure from Western allies, he has instituted more transparent voting procedures. Each polling station must post its results on site, before sending them to a central counting point. But the chief election officer for each constituency typically encompassing over 200 polling stations doesn’t have to reveal how votes were added up.
“How returning officers aggregate the result is not as transparent as at polling stations, and it needs to be for the result system to meet international standards,” said Staffan Darnolf of the International Foundation for Election Systems, which is advising Pakistan’s electoral authority.
While the European Union has an observer mission on the ground in Pakistan, the U.S.-based International Republican Institute dropped plans to send a team after the government criticized its voter surveys and barred it from conducting Pakistan’s first ever exit polls.
Opposition party leader Sharif says Musharraf is sure to tamper with the vote. “In order to survive, he has to rig the election. He knows that,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press as he campaigned across Punjab, the province where over half the National Assembly seats are contested.
Editor Sethi predicted the government would use a divide-and-rule strategy concentrate its rigging on boosting the PML-Q’s showing in its Punjab stronghold at the expense of Sharif rather than Bhutto’s party. That could dissuade Bhutto’s party from joining Sharif in protesting the result.
“This is a sophisticated exercise. They’ve done it so many times in the past, they’ve worked it to a fine art,” Sethi said.
Another reason for Musharraf to be careful is his relationship with the army, whose command he relinquished in November. The military’s own popularity has been eroded as it has taken on Taliban militants on Pakistani soil. The escalating violence has left over 2,600 dead in the last eight months and overshadowed election campaigning.
To deal with postelection unrest, “Musharraf cannot rely on the military the way he used to when he was army chief,” said Pakistani analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi.
The army “will find it difficult to open fire on protesters, especially in Punjab. In such a situation it could pull back and advise Musharraf it is time to go,” Rivzi said.
Zardari, the late Bhutto’s husband, is hedging his bets on how to deal with Musharraf, who still enjoys Washington’s support. The U.S. has anchored its policy in fighting Taliban and al-Qaida on its relationship with the now-retired general although he has failed to generate public backing for that cause.
Zardari’s ambivalence toward Musharraf could leave him at odds with Sharif, who insists Musharraf must leave power completely, as well as many in his own party, which has traditionally resisted military rule.
Associated Press writer Stephen Graham contributed to this report.