LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) — If one Pakistan ruling party rally with awkward speeches, empty audience chairs and distracted crowds in a dustbowl is anything to go by, President Pervez Musharraf’s days in power may be numbered.
Tuesday night’s rally in a poor, smoggy Lahore neighbourhood was for Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, a quietly spoken man running as Musharraf’s de facto prime ministerial candidate in January 8 elections and a possible political kingmaker.
“Prime minister!” shouted one supporter in front of a huge TV screen, to a crowd of only several thousand in the capital of Punjab province, where Elahi once served as chief minister. “Pervaiz Elahi!” the crowd shouted back.
The candidate, who promises to continue with the unpopular Musharraf’s legacy, had arrived in a gleaming BMW hoping for up to 20,000 people to usher him in with his own anthem playing.
As Elahi slammed his opponents, aides on the carpet-laden podium tried to inspire the crowd, beckoning them to clap and wave their green flags.
But scores started exiting to streets where hundreds of goats, cows and camels waiting for slaughter for a Muslim Eid holiday competed for space with campaign buses and party aides’ Range Rovers.
Elahi is the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) candidate in a three-way battle with opposition leaders and former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, both back after years in exile despite corruption charges hanging over them.
Elahi could be Musharraf’s trump card. Punjab, Pakistan’s wealthiest province, accounts for nearly half of parliamentary seats. Critics say he still wields huge influence over the state machinery to skew a victory in Musharraf’s favour.
The stakes are high. With polls showing a possible hung parliament, Elahi may become a power player as either Musharraf or the opposition try to form a parliamentary majority.
An opposition-run parliament could move to impeach Musharraf over accusations he acted unconstitutionally in securing a new term as president. Musharraf ended more than six weeks of emergency rule on Saturday.
As the campaign gets into gear, Elahi has avoided mentioning Musharraf in many speeches. Commentators say he is wary of being linked too much to a leader on a popularity slide.
In his rally speech, he mentioned Musharraf only twice.
His focus is Bhutto, with whom he has a long family feud.
“(If Bhutto was elected) the government will not last more than 6 months. There is a lack of trust between Benazir and the president,” Elahi said in an interview at his mansion in Lahore.
Aides say his rallies in rural areas are bigger, a region that is also a stronghold for Musharraf.
“To understand Elahi’s support, you must go to villages,” said Samia Amjad, a PML-Q provincial parliamentary candidate. “They’re not concerned about issues like the state of emergency there, but development issues.”
Elahi’s supporters say he has done a good job on social work. Punjab’s development budget rose from 20 billion ($330 million) rupees to 150 billion rupees, aides say.
“He’s worked a lot on education, roads, health. Things we have never seen before,” said businessman Mohammad Afzal.
But polls show Elahi’s party is struggling.
A survey this month by the International Republican Institute gave Bhutto’s party 30 percent nationally. Sharif’s party had 25 percent and the PML-Q came in third with 23 percent. In its Punjab stronghold, the PML-Q came second, behind Sharif.
“In Punjab, given the present pace of the campaign, he may not get a majority,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
“And if you don’t get a clear majority in Punjab you don’t get one in Pakistan.”
The opposition is worried Elahi’s poll weakness could lead to vote-rigging, given the former chief minister’s influence over a network in villages where two-thirds of the province lives.
Bhutto’s party, the largest opposition group, has already accused the PML-Q of distributing thousands of ballots marked in its favour to ensure victory in Punjab.
Elahi dismissed the allegations.
“I am hearing these allegations for the last 35 years,” Elahi said in the interview. “When we were in opposition we used to say the same things.”
Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari. Editing by Grant McCool.Top