BENAZIR BHUTTO’S widowed husband Asif Ali Zardari has warned that Pakistan will face massive violence which could lead to its break-up if the government of President Pervez Musharraf carries out alleged plans to rig and disrupt tomorrow’s elections.
“Up till now I’ve shown absolute patience,” he said in an emotional interview with The Sunday Times last night as campaigning came to a close.
“My wife has been killed, yet I’ve calmed people down, stopped them protesting, I’ve called no strike. But I’m telling you, people are absolutely on the warpath.
If the elections are rigged the situation will go out of my hands. We’ll have no choice but to take to the streets.”
Zardari was speaking after a suicide bombing outside election offices in northwest Pakistan left 37 dead, mostly members of his Pakistan People’s party (PPP), and heightened fears of polling day violence to deter voters.
“They’ve killed 37 of my boys,” he said in a choked voice. “And I fear this is just the start.”
Zardari took over running Bhutto’s PPP, after her assassination six weeks ago, jointly with their son Bilawal who is studying at Oxford: “I feel her spirit is with me and I won’t let her down. But I fear they did not kill Benazir just to let us win …
“We’ve played our part responsibly. We’ve taken part in the elections rather than boycotted. Now it’s up to them to give us a free run. People are angry, they are on the breadline, despite the $60billion (£ 30 billion) windfall Musharraf has enjoyed over the past eight years. They want change and they want democracy.
If we’re allowed free and fair elections I’m 100% sure we will get a majority.”
Increasingly seen as a make-or-break poll for Musharraf, the West’s most vital ally in the war on terror, most voters share Zardari’s conviction that they will be rigged and violent. Last year saw more than 50 suicide bombs and barely a day goes by without some kind of blast.
“These will be the most dangerous elections we have ever had,” said Nisar Memon, Pakistan’s information minister. “Terrorists will try something.”
When Zardari spoke last week at a rally in the city of Faisalabad, he stood behind a green-tinted, bullet-proof glass screen several inches thick, as if from inside a giant aquarium. The crowd was frisked and penned well back. When he stopped to eat at a party worker’s home, a medical team tested the food.
Bhutto’s death has left Zardari as the principal target for assassins but, when asked about the risk, he replied: “I don’t have a choice. Either I do this or become a stateless person.”
After a subdued campaign, many Pakistanis said they feared going out to vote tomorrow, particularly in cities such as Lahore. “It’s the question everyone is asking,” said Asma Jahangir, a human rights lawyer. “Should we go and vote?”
Since yesterday 81,000 troops have been deployed. Hospitals have been placed on red alert, instructed to keep operating theatres manned around the clock and blood banks on emergency stand-by.
“The government is trying to scare people,” said Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), who was ousted as prime minister in 1999 when Musharraf seized power. Speaking amid cheering crowds as he defied security advice to make an unannounced tour of the walled city, he said: “It’s important that people come out and vote.”
Although opinion polls have a dubious record in Pakistan, all three polls carried out last week showed support for Musharraf at an all-time low and his ruling party, the PML(Q), heading for a crushing defeat.
The latest poll by the US-funded International Republican Institute predicted a landslide for the two main opposition parties. Half of those polled planned to vote for Bhutto’s PPP and 22% backed Sharif’s PML(N), while only 14% favoured Musharraf’s PML(Q).
Sharif and Zardari, the former rivals, had lunch yesterday -their second meeting in a week -to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition. “I asked him, ‘Are you interested in power?’ and he asked me, ‘Are you?'” said Sharif. “I said, ‘No, my most important aim is to get the military out of politics and restore the judiciary’.”
A Zardari-Sharif alliance is Musharraf’s worst nightmare, as together they could get the two-thirds majority needed to oust him as president. But all sides are hedging their bets. Zardari has also met Tariq Aziz, Musharraf’s national security adviser, while Sharif’s brother has been meeting the president’s close friend Brigadier Niaz Ahmad.
If opposition parties do win, it is far from clear who would be prime minister.
Neither Sharif nor Zardari is standing in the elections. Zardari was twice jailed on charges ranging from corruption to conspiracy to murder, although never convicted, and is a controversial figure even within his own party. He also fails the new criterion that the prime minister must be a graduate.
Sharif was banned from standing because he is still facing criminal charges arising from his last term in office. Yet both men refuse to rule themselves out of the job with Sharif pointing out that a prime minister has six months to win a by-election.
Michael Gahler, head of the European Union election observers, saw Musharraf yesterday for a third time to express concern over interference by local officials and lack of transparency in the counting process.
A wave of sympathy over Bhutto’s killing has led most analysts to believe that the PPP will emerge as the largest party. PPP support seems particularly strong among women.
Bakhtiar, a mother of eight who lives in a baked mud hut in Sargodha, northeast Pakistan, said she would be voting PPP for the first time. “We will vote for the lady who died because she died for us,” she said.
Few expect the PPP to win enough seats to form a government on its own, as Pakistan’s constituency system favours local bigwigs, many of whom are allied to Musharraf.
In many rural areas voters give their support to the so-called feudal lords, large landowners or influential families who give them work or intercede for them in problems with police and courts.
“There’s no way you can get elected unless you’re a feudal in our area,” said Sheryar Bokhari, one of the scions of the leading family in Jhang, rural Punjab, whose two cousins and a nephew are all standing for different parties. “To win a national seat you have to be a thoroughbred.”
In manor houses either side of the village of Shah Jewna live Abida Hussain and Faisal Saleh Hayat, the two main rival candidates. In the past six elections one or other has won here.
Once among Bhutto’s closest allies, Hayat left the PPP to join Musharraf in 2002 for a cabinet post and is running on a PML(Q) ticket. Hussain has fought in the past as an independent and for the PML(N), then the PML(Q), and was one of Bhutto’s most vociferous critics. Yet this time she is running for the PPP. She claims that with the Bhutto sympathy vote she is heading for a majority of 35,000-40,000.
She describes as “uncharitable” suggestions that she joins whatever side is likely to win and bristles at talk of hypocrisy. “I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve been so in demand that I’ve had every single political party in Pakistan ask me to join them,” she said.
Her cousin is also unashamed about switching sides. Hayat said: “As a minister I got 2.25billion rupees (£ 29m) for the area. My people know that I’ve brought electricity to 300 villages in the past five years and am building a new bridge.”
It is an ugly campaign. Hayat carries a Beretta pistol and Hussain has men waving Kalashnikovs to clear her way at public meetings. Hussain claims that Hayat is using local police to lock up her party workers. He accuses her of getting two of his polling agents killed.
A study by Pakistan’s Daily Times found that in Punjab’s 148 parliamentary seats, only 45 have stayed with the same party for the past 20 years. The influence of such feudals who switch sides to whomever is likely to gain power means that whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s elections, real change is unlikely.
“It doesn’t make any difference who wins, Abida or Faisal,” said Mohammad Anwar Javed, a medical technician. “What we need is water, electricity, flour mills and jobs and neither of them will bring that.”