Pakistan votes today in one of the most contentious elections in its 60-year history with the opposition threatening to launch massive protests if the poll is rigged, as expected, to prevent the party of the late Benazir Bhutto from winning.
About 500,000 security personnel, including 81,000 troops, were deployed last night on high alert to try to stem a wave of bloodshed before the poll. A suicide attack on a rally on Saturday killed 47 people.
Although these are parliamentary polls, they could decide whether President Musharraf, the former general who seized power in 1999 and became a key ally of the US, is impeached for imposing emergency rule to ensure his re-election last year.
They could also determine how a new civilian government tackles al-Qaeda and Taleban militants based near the Afghan border, who have carried out a series of bloody attacks across Pakistan in the last year.
President Musharraf, who has repeatedly pledged fair elections, predicted over the weekend that the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), which supports him, would win a majority and warned opposition parties not to protest at the result. Pervez Elahi, the PML (Q) candidate for prime minister, said yesterday: “We’ll sweep the polls.”
Opinion polls and analysts predict that if the election is fair the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) – the two main opposition parties – will win 50-75 per cent of the vote, with no single party winning an outright majority.
Asif Ali Zardari, Ms Bhutto’s widower and her successor as PPP leader, struck a conciliatory note yesterday, offering to form a broad coalition government including former enemies. “If God gives us a chance…we will try to take all foes and friends together,” said Mr Zardari. “I think we have reached the breaking point where if we don’t band together we will lose this great nation which we call Pakistan.”
Nawaz Sharif, the PML (N) leader, was more confrontational, saying that only massive electoral fraud could prevent his party and the PPP from winning a majority and vowing to protest if they were robbed of victory. “It is more than clear that a massive rigging plan is in place,” said Mr Sharif, who was ousted as Prime Minister by Mr Musharraf in 1999. He also vowed to impeach Mr Musharraf if the PPP and PML (N) won a two-thirds majority.
Opinion polls are scarce and unreliable in Pakistan but a survey by the US based International Republican Institute forecast last week that the PPP would win 50 per cent, followed by PML (N) with 22 percent and the PML (Q) on 14 per cent.
Pakistan’s Islamist parties are also expected to lose ground to the liberal opposition, especially in North West Frontier Province – site of much of the recent violence. In the previous elections in 2002 the Muttehida Majlis Amal (MMA) alliance of Islamist parties won control of the government there on a wave of pro-Taleban sentiment following the invasion of Afghanistan.
Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the conservative cleric who led the MMA, became leader of the opposition as Mr Musharraf sought a parliamentary ally. Now Maulana Rahman is not only expected to lose his seat: he has become a target for a new generation of militants – dubbed the “neo-Taleban”. The cleric returned to his constituency only last week and has been campaigning over the telephone, surrounded by guards. A few days later, more than four people were killed in a bomb attack on an MMA election rally.
“Though the anti-American sentiments are still strong, the electorate may not trust the Islamists’ alliance again,” said Rahimullah Yousufzai, editor of a local newspaper. “Rather they will back liberal parties.”