On a lofty platform, out of suicide-bomb range, Shahbaz Sharif, a leader of Pakistan’s second opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N), promises poor Lahoris change. “Our leaders have been buying themselves bullet-proof cars and doing nothing for the people!” he thunders. A thousand men—about half the number expected to turn up to a dusty bazaar in the city—roar in approval. Then Mr Sharif is gone: whisked away by a motorcade that may include the two bullet-proof cars given to the PML-N by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
The run-up to a general election due on February 18th has seen relatively little campaigning—but lots of violence. Since the assassination on December 27th of Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), over 400 people have been killed by terrorists, mostly in suicide-bombings. The Awami National Party, the only outfit campaigning hard near the radicalised frontier with Afghanistan, suffered bomb attacks on its rallies on February 9th and 11th, in which 36 perished.
This week the government struck back. In Baluchistan province, it arrested the Taliban’s former operations chief in Afghanistan, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah. The same day in north-western Pakistan kidnappers seized Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, with his guard and driver. They have reportedly offered to swap them for Mr Dadullah.
The violence may deter many Pakistanis from voting. Even in safer times, most do not bother with it: 41% of voters turned out in the country’s previous election in 2002. A low turnout would help President Pervez Musharraf, a recently demobbed army ruler, to rig the election on behalf of his political allies, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), or PML(Q). Rigging by army spies is another Pakistani election tradition. The International Republican Institute (IRI) has withdrawn election monitors on security grounds—and having been refused permission to conduct exit polls.
Yet it is not clear that Mr Musharraf and his crew could change the result. According to a poll for the IRI, only 15% of Pakistanis approve of Mr Musharraf—half the rating even of his main sponsor, President George Bush, in America. Of those polled, 50% said they would vote for the PPP, now led by Miss Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, 22% plumped for PML(N) and 14% for PML(Q). Taking the hint, some PML(Q) candidates have dropped the party symbol, a bicycle, from their campaign material.
Several polls suggest that shortages of wheat and other essential foods, high inflation and worsening power cuts are the main reasons for Mr Musharraf’s unpopularity. The shortage of wheat, despite a bumper crop last year, has been blamed on the former prime minister, Shaukat Aziz. To help cut a big trade deficit, nearly 1m tonnes was exported. Smugglers may have disposed of a similar amount. A mafia of well-connected wholesalers are now hoarding the crop. In recent months the price of flour has almost doubled.
Most Pakistanis also blame Mr Musharraf for their country’s grave insecurity. According to the IRI poll, 89% think Pakistan should not support America in its “war on terror”. In addition, many accuse Mr Musharraf, or his political allies, of murdering Miss Bhutto; she was killed in a suicide attack after a campaign rally. Miss Bhutto had accused several Musharraf henchmen of plotting to assassinate her.
In a tribal society, where honour and sacrifice are prized, many Pakistanis are expected to give a sympathy vote to the PPP. In Hussainabad, a slum district of Lahore, a gang of men sunning themselves on a rubbish-strewn railway track say that they are normally PML(N) voters but this time will vote PPP. Long since defined by the sufferings of its leading dynasty, the Bhutto clan, the PPP is understandably encouraging this emotion. It has been running a minute-long eulogy to Miss Bhutto on many television channels, which makes no reference to her party.
In fact, pollsters have a dire record in predicting Pakistani elections. Rigging and violence are two causes of uncertainty. Another concerns the feudal nature of many constituencies, and the habit of their hereditary rulers of switching horses from poll to poll. Of 183 outgoing parliamentarians from Punjab, the most populous province, 25 have changed parties to contest this election. Land-owning families, especially in unreformed southern Punjab and Sindh, also cut deals with one another, to ensure their maximum representation in the elected assemblies—for one party or another. As the former party of government, the PML(Q) has many strong land-owning candidates. It may legitimately do better than predicted.
Mr Musharraf must hope his opponents will at least fail to win a two-thirds parliamentary majority. That would allow them to overturn the constitutional changes that he forced through to secure his own recent re-election—and perhaps turf him from power. Indeed, Mr Zardari and the PML (N)’s leader, Nawaz Sharif, neither of whom is personally contesting the poll, said this week that they were ready to form a coalition government.
It was a stirring moment—a promise of civilian rule returning to Pakistan after nearly a decade. Of course, it is a shame that both politicians are massively compromised: by allegations of corruption, brutishness and former misrule. Then again, to believe in Pakistani democracy, you have to believe in redemption.