Pakistani Elections Spark Little Fanfare
The Associated Press
By Robin McDowell

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – The stakes are high but enthusiasm appears low as Pakistanis face one of the most crucial elections in their history.

The assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, the absence of charismatic candidates and the fear of rigging have left many wondering if going to the polls is worth it.

“It all seems so futile,” said Ghulam Jilani, 36, flipping through his newspaper on the side of a dusty road in the southwestern city of Quetta as taxis and trucks zipped by. “Why should I put my life at risk to cast a ballot?”

Campaigning has been remarkably subdued, with the Dec. 27 assassination of Bhutto leaving many in the South Asian nation of 160 million feeling gutted as they prepare to pick a new parliament.

More than 35 people were killed this week in two separate attacks targeting campaign rallies both blamed on Islamic militants.

Candidates have largely abstained from staging big demonstrations, instead going door-to-door to drum up support or hanging banners along roadsides.

That has made this campaign one of the most colorless and lackluster in the country’s 60-year history.

“We’re not seeing any of the hustle and bustle we’ve seen in past elections,” lamented Mohammad Sharif, a 55-year-old journalist in the southern city of Karachi.

One of the new parliament’s most crucial tasks will be determining how to fight al-Qaida- and Taliban-linked militants, who have expanded their reach beyond traditional areas bordering Afghanistan in the volatile northwest. Another will be to ensure the country’s nuclear arsenal does not fall into the wrong hands.

President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and went on to become a valued U.S. ally in the war on terror, says Monday’s vote is a key step in the country’s transition to democracy. He is not contesting the ballot, but recent opinion polls predict a landslide opposition win that could make him vulnerable to impeachment.

Government measures in the run-up to the election from purging the judiciary to restricting press freedoms have sapped enthusiasm from voters and activists. Musharraf has said the steps were necessary to fight terrorism, but critics claim he is trying to secure his grip on power.

“Musharraf wants a government of puppets, so he can serve and please his foreign masters,” said Zaheer Taj of Multan, 37 and unemployed.

Although many people said fear would keep them from the polls on Monday, others said Bhutto’s death had bolstered their resolve.

Mohammed Sadiq, 65, a retired factory worker, walked 18 miles from his village to the city Faisalabad for a campaign rally by Bhutto’s husband, who has taken over the helm of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party.

“If she can sacrifice her life for us, why can’t we do it for her?” Sadiq said.

Bhutto’s party is expected to rake in more than half the votes Monday, according to a survey by the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute. Another opposition party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was expected to win another 20 percent.

That would give them the two-thirds majority needed to impeach Musharraf.

A senior official of Bhutto’s party, Babar Awan, said Friday his group would try to remove Musharraf if it wins the elections.

Many people believe that if Musharraf’s party is trounced by opponents, he will rig or delay the vote as has been commonplace in past Pakistani elections.

The 64-year-old leader promised Thursday that would not happen.

“Despite all rumors, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful,” Musharraf said in televised address. “They will also be held on time.”

For some, the main concern is a major outbreak of political violence if the opposition believes the election results have been manipulated. Highlighting those fears, a gunfight between Bhutto and Musharraf’s supporters Thursday in the south wounded seven people. Like many others, Zia Khan, a 35-year-old shopkeeper in Lahore, said he had no intention of voting.

“I am not crazy,” he said, adding he would spend election day at home with his family. “I know, as well as you, there is a suicide blast every day. And what difference will a single vote make? None.”

Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Kahuta, Stephen Graham in Faisalabad, Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Khalid Tanveer in Multan and Asif Shahzad in Lahore contributed to this report.

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