Foes see elections as test of Musharraf
Los Angeles Times
Laura King, Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – The lingering sting of tear gas hung in the air as Roedad Khan, a retired senior civil servant in his 80s, straightened his sensible cardigan sweater and railed unreservedly against President Pervez Musharraf.

“He is shameless, simply shameless,” said Khan, who had just watched police here hurl tear-gas canisters and fire a water cannon to break up a crowd of protesters. Many were lawyers clad in decorous black suits.

“Anyone in his position, anyone with any dignity and sense of responsibility, would leave, resign,” said Khan, shaking his white-haired head. “His power cannot last.”

The accuracy of that prediction will be tested when Pakistanis go to the polls Monday in the first parliamentary elections in more than five years — balloting that is shadowed by fears of widespread violence and vote-rigging.

Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999 and went on to become a key U.S. ally in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, is not contesting office. He secured a new five-year term as president last year, though one based on a legally shaky vote by lawmakers. But although Musharraf is not on the ballot, opponents of all stripes have sought to make these elections a referendum on his tenure — even while acknowledging that this puts them on a collision course with a leader who has shown readiness to rule by decree if his power is threatened.

Polls suggest that if the vote is a reasonably fair one, the party aligned with Musharraf could face a trouncing at the hands of his two major opponents: the Pakistan People’s Party, now led by Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; and the party led by another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

The most comprehensive survey of Pakistanis to date, released this week by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, indicated that nearly 80% of respondents believed Musharraf should step aside. The survey also suggested that his party would garner just 14% of the vote, compared with 50% for Bhutto’s party and 22% for Sharif’s, with the remainder split among smaller regional and ethnic parties.

Musharraf’s allies insist that his party retains a solid base of support, particularly in rural constituencies of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. They foresee a divided result rather than an outright opposition victory.

“The countryside is with us, and here in Pakistan, the rural masses matter,” said Tariq Azim, a former minister in Musharraf’s government who serves as a party spokesman.

But he acknowledged that the party’s standing had been battered by Musharraf’s troubles “because of all the opposition combining together to single him out, to target him.”

The last year has been difficult for the 64-year-old Pakistani leader, a cascade of damaging events set in motion when he first tried in March to dismiss the popular chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

That galvanized a lawyer-led protest movement that swiftly grew into a much larger anti-government groundswell. With the Supreme Court appearing poised to invalidate his election to a new presidential term, Musharraf in November declared emergency rule, akin to martial law, using sweeping powers to suspend the constitution, fire Chaudhry and dozens of other judges, jail thousands of opponents and crack down on the electronic media.

The emergency decree was lifted in mid-December, but political opponents say an atmosphere of fear and intimidation persists. The deposed chief justice, together with his family, remains under house arrest, as do several other prominent judges and lawyers. Officials with opposition parties say thousands of opposition activists have been served with a document that in effect is an open-dated arrest warrant, meaning they could be rounded up at any time.

Independent observers such as the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, have already warned that a fair vote is unlikely.

“For that, you need a neutral caretaker government, you need an impartial election commission, you need noninterference by the intelligence agencies, you need an independent judiciary, you need accurate voter rolls,” said Samina Ahmed, the group’s Pakistan researcher. “Regardless of what happens on voting day, these are basic structural needs that have not been fulfilled.”

As the vote approaches, fears of political violence have intensified. Even before the gun-and-bomb attack that killed Bhutto, the country’s most popular politician, as she left a campaign rally Dec. 27, many candidates had been afraid to preside over mass gatherings.

Last week, nearly 30 people were killed in a suicide blast at a campaign rally in the town of Charsadda in North-West Frontier Province. Opposition activists have been beaten and gunned down. Some candidates have been virtually forced underground, resorting to campaign videos and text messages to reach supporters.

Voters say they are mustering their courage to venture out on election day. A college student in the eastern city of Lahore said her parents had urged her to stay home, but that she planned to defy them.

“I’m not usually disobedient, and I understand why they’re worried for me,” said the 22-year-old woman, who did not want her name used. “But this is too important.”

Compounding a pervasive sense of anger and helplessness, the country has been hit in the last three months by shortages of basic commodities such as flour and cooking oil, and costs have skyrocketed in part due to hoarding and price-gouging.

Rolling power cuts in cities such as Islamabad, the normally orderly capital, “are giving many people the sense that the government is no longer capable of providing basic services,” said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity.

In a produce market in the city of Rawalpindi, just outside Islamabad, vendor Imtiaz Aslam grimaced as he described how a longtime customer, unable to pay for a sack of tomatoes, became furious when Aslam tried to press them on him anyway.

Aslam managed to soothe the man, accepting a few tattered rupee notes as payment.

“I knew it wasn’t me he was angry at,” he said. “People can’t buy the basic things to feed their family. What could be worse than that?”

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