Shielded behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by armed police, the Pakistani opposition leader Asif Zardari told supporters yesterday that his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto, had come to him in a dream.
“She said ‘I am with you, and I am with the people,'” he said, drawing a roar of approval from the crowd at his party’s last rally before next Monday’s tensely anticipated general election.
A sense of trepidation has gripped Pakistan as the country faces its most troubled poll in decades amid suicide bombings, rigging allegations and the dramatically crumbling popularity ratings of President Pervez Musharraf.
While Bhutto is gone, her ghost hangs heavily over the campaign. Pollsters predict a massive sympathy vote in favour of her Pakistan People’s party that could dislodge Musharraf from power. A poll by the International Republican Institute published on Monday found that half of Pakistanis planned to vote for Bhutto’s party, 22% for Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and just 14% for Musharraf’s group.
But her supporters accuse the government of planning to rig the vote, stoking fears of violent upheaval once the results have been declared. Musharraf warned yesterday that he would brook no post-poll protest. “Nothing of the sort will be allowed,” he told a meeting in Islamabad yesterday. “In this situation of extremism and terrorism, no agitation, anarchy or chaos can be acceptable.”
Elections will be “free, fair, transparent and peaceful”, he promised.
The gathering clouds have punctured the normally boisterous election spirit. More than 40 people, mostly opposition supporters, have died in bombings at political rallies in the North West Frontier province over the past week.
Yesterday’s PPP rally in Faisalabad, a major industrial city in Punjab province, was only the second addressed by Zardari, who stood behind a green bulletproof shield. The political power of Bhutto, and the challenge facing her husband in replacing her, was evident. Her face dominated giant posters that hung from the walls; supporters played tapes of her speeches in the streets outside.
“I love Benazir Bhutto sahiba. She is still alive in my heart,” said Muhammad Shahzad, 22. But the trainee bank clerk said he was “not 100% sure” about Zardari’s suitability to lead the party. Instead he looked forward to the day when their 19-year-old son Bilawal, who is currently studying at Oxford, would return.
Zardari’s main challenge is to hold together the party, which was run with an iron fist by his wife, once the polls are over. But he is dogged by his own reputation. As a cabinet minister in the 1990s Zardari faced corruption allegations involving kickbacks on government purchases of Arab gold, French jets and Polish tractors. Since then he has struggled to shake off the nickname Mister Ten Per Cent.
Supporters say that although the Sindhi businessman has spent 11 years in jail he has never been convicted, and that he has fallen victim to army attempts to crush the Bhutto political dynasty.
Yesterday’s rally was modest by PPP standards, with perhaps 7,000 supporters. But outside the gates, some said they were deterred by the threat of violence. “We are afraid of blast,” said Muhammad Zaffar outside his shoe shop half a mile away. “These elections will be so tough.”
The stakes are high for Musharraf, whose popularity is sliding dramatically. A survey for the BBC Urdu service found that most Pakistanis believe the country’s stability would improve if he resigned. Musharraf’s spokesman said the polls did not represent public opinion.Top