The assassination of Benazir Bhutto sucked the oxygen out of campaigning in Pakistan for an election on Feb. 18 that is meant to mark a transition to civilian-led democracy. No one has dared speak out as forcefully as Bhutto did against Islamist militancy and need for democracy in a nuclear-armed Muslim state on the front line of a war against al Qaeda. The following are profiles of politicians with most at stake in polls for national and provincial assemblies:
PRESIDENT PERVEZ MUSHARRAF
- It’s not a presidential election, but the outcome of the vote is vital for Musharraf’s future. A hostile parliament could try to impeach him for the “unconstitutional” way he got himself re-elected for a second five-year term by the outgoing assemblies, and imposed six weeks of emergency rule in November to get rid of judges who could have annulled his victory.
- Musharraf, 64, came to power as a general in a bloodless coup in 1999, ousting prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He first became president in 2001. He quit as army chief in November, weakening links with the institution that has been the greatest source of his strength.
- He has survived at least three al Qaeda inspired assassination attempts after becoming a U.S. ally following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
- The alliance with the United States, and authoritarian responses to political challenges over the past year have caused Musharraf’s popularity to plummet. A survey released on Monday by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI) showed 75 percent of Pakistanis want him to quit, and put his job approval rating at a low of 15 percent.
CHAUDHRY PERVEZ ELAHI
- The Chaudhrys of Gujrat are an influential political family in Punjab. They worked with intelligence agencies to herd support for Musharraf by taking over Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. While called the PML, it is usually refered to as PML-Q or Q League to differentiate it from Sharif’s wing.
- Elahi, former chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s richest and most populous province, is a cousin of PML president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. The IRI survey said only five percent of people saw Elahi as the best person to handle Pakistan’s problems.
- Regarded as opportunists, the Chaudhrys are also seen as conservatives, sensitive to the religious lobby, who have failed to help Musharraf set a more liberal agenda.
ASIF ALI ZARDARI
- Bhutto’s 51-year-old widower is not standing for election. But having been made joint chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) along with his son 19-year-old Bilawal, in accordance with Benazir’s wishes, Zardari’s calling the shots for a party that is likely to emerge with the largest number of seats.
- The moustachioed Zardari has a reputation for warmth and loyalty to friends. But he is dogged by the nickname “Mr Ten Percent”. He spent 11 years in jail for graft and other charges. Never convicted, he says the charges were politically motivated.
- The government last month said it would pursue an old money laundering case against Zardari in a Swiss court.
- Though it was Sharif that hounded Bhutto out of Pakistan and jailed Zardari, Musharraf kept Zardari in prison until 2004. While regarded as political liability for Bhutto, Zardari earned respect for the fortitude he showed during his time in jail.
- Like his late wife, Zardari hails from a feudal landowning family, though his was far smaller than the Bhuttos’. Aside from Bilawal, he has two teenaged daughters.
MAKHDOOM AMIN FAHEEM
- The PPP’s vice chairman could very well become the next prime minister. Many people believe Musharraf regards Faheem as an acceptable as he doesn’t take hard positions.
- A large landowner in his native Sindh province, soft-spoken Faheem has been loyal to the Bhutto family throughout.
- He served in the cabinet of Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister, who was toppled and hanged by the military in late 1970s. He also served in Benazir’s two governments, and led the party during her eight years in self-exile. He refused the prime ministership offered him by Musharraf after a 2002 general election.
- Sharif, 58, is barred from standing for election. He was prime minister twice in the 1990s. His first government was fondly remembered by businessmen. The second ended in a coup with Pakistan almost bankrupt. He was sent into exile in 2000.
- The PML-N, otherwise known as the Nawaz League, can’t win. But Sharif hopes to re-capture ground, particularly in central Punjab province, to keep pressure on Musharraf, or even bring him down if PPP joins hands.
- Known for a love for food and grand life-style, Sharif still possesses a common touch most other leaders lack.
- Musharraf promptly deported Sharif to Saudi Arabia when he tried returning in September, but had to let him come back in November because of pressure from Saudi monarch King Abdullah.
- A protege of an earlier military dictator, President Mohammad Zia-ul Haq, Sharif sometimes displays colours of a pro-West liberal, but he cultivated appeal to the religious constituency over the years. Critics say he mixed pragmatism in foreign policy with conservatism and illiberalism domestically.
- Sharif has yet to earn Washington’s trust. President George W. Bush has said Sharif should prove his commitment to battling against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Zeeshan Haider.Top