While it is shaping up to be more competitive than the last poll five years ago, a state of emergency imposed by President Pervez Musharraf has already tilted the field in favor of his supporters, observers say.
If fraud is unchecked, analysts warn, this South Asian nation could descend into deep turmoil, dashing Western hopes for a government moderate and stable enough to turn back a rising tide of Islamic extremism.
“There is no level playing field,” said Sarwar Bari, head of the Free and Fair Election Network, a Pakistani group monitoring the run-up to the parliamentary vote.
Conditions clearly favor the pro-Musharraf ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim Leaque-Q, Bari said.
Musharraf, a key U.S. ally, insists the Jan. 8 ballot will be fair and accuses the opposition of girding for defeat.
“This is a clear indication of their preparation for defeat,” Musharraf told CNN last weekend. “Now when they lose, they’ll have a good rationale, that it is all rigged, it is all fraud. In Pakistan, the loser always cries.”
Musharraf has vowed to give up his emergency powers this weekend. A senior government official said Friday that Musharraf also may grant an opposition demand to suspend local mayors during the election to prevent them from influencing the vote.
The return from exile of the country’s two main opposition leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, makes the contest more competitive than in 2002. That election, held three years after Musharraf took power in a coup, installed a parliament largely subservient to him.
Bhutto and Sharif, both former prime ministers, have dropped their threats to boycott the polls even though Sharif has been disqualified from running. But the allegations of election rigging remain and could be decisive in a close race.
Bhutto is demanding that district mayors including those from her own party be suspended to blunt their ability to use their control of jobs and funds to dictate to local voters whom they should back.
Cheating to get the upper hand in elections and stirring unrest in the wake of defeat are both enduring elements of Pakistan’s roughhouse politics.
Bhutto’s party, the largest opposition group, is accusing the Pakistan Muslim League-Q of distributing thousands of ballots marked in its favor to ensure victory in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province and the key to national power.
Her party alleges that loyal officials and police will turn a blind eye to so-called “ghost” polling stations, where the phantom ballots will be cast. Also, polling stations in opposition strongholds will be shifted at the last moment so voters don’t know where to vote.
“These two methods are very traditional,” said Babar Awan, a senator for Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party.
Musharraf and PML-Q officials have denied the allegations.
But Musharraf has failed to dispel widespread concern that steps taken in the run-up to the vote have already undermined its credibility.
Under a state of emergency imposed on Nov. 3, Musharraf switched off Pakistan’s private television news networks, claiming they were glorifying militants and “demoralizing the nation.”
With the crackdown in full swing, state TV broadcast speeches by Pervaiz Elahi, the pro-Musharraf candidate for prime minister, before huge crowds while Bhutto was held under house arrest to prevent her from leading rallies against the emergency.
Several channels have returned to the air only after axing their main political talk shows, while the most popular one, Geo, remains shut.
Government advertisements lauding high-profile development projects with pictures of Elahi and Musharraf have run in newspapers, even though as president, Musharraf is supposed to be neutral.
“Until very recently, he has been telling people to vote for the PML-Q,” said analyst Talat Masood, a retired general. “He’s been very partisan throughout.”
Western governments, dismayed at Musharraf’s authoritarian turn, are insisting that freedom of speech and assembly be restored to enable a free vote. But the Bush administration seems to be giving the benefit of the doubt to Musharraf, a key ally in the anti-terrorism fight.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said last week that while the vote will not be perfect, it can still produce a result that “really does reflect the choices made by the people of Pakistan.”
Sixty-five American election observers from the International Republican Institute began to arrive in Islamabad this week. The European Union and the Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies are still deciding whether to send similar missions.
Their presence, along with Pakistani election monitors, the media and polling agents for the candidates, may deter the worst excesses.
But others say the observers are coming too late.
Musharraf has used his emergency powers to purge the courts, raising doubts that judges would consider legal challenges to the results.
Western diplomats in Islamabad concede that some vote rigging is unavoidable but hope it will not be too widespread.
“There’s a margin beyond which you can’t rig without it falling into complete farce,” one diplomat said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Others say that Bhutto’s prediction of a popular revolt akin to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 sparked by public perception that elections were stacked in the government’s favor could be put to the test.