The suspense over the timing of elections in Pakistan ended on Wednesday with the Election Commission announcing a short 40-day deferment from January 8. February 18 is the new polling date for the national assembly and the four provincial legislatures.
“Troops will be deployed to ensure free, fair, transparent and peaceful elections,” President Pervez Musharraf declared within hours of the EC’s announcement. His directions to provinces to seek help from the army and the Pakisan Rangers were based on the reasoning the poll panel gave for delaying the election date: widespread violence, arson and looting in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination which, according to Musharraf, inflicted a Rs 100 billion loss on the country’s economy.
In a televised address to the nation, the President said British Premier Gordon Brown had accepted his request to send a team from the Scotland Yard to help investigate Benazir’s assassination. But in Naudero, Larkana, Asif Ali Zardari wondered why it couldn’t have been done immediately after the December 27 bullet-bomb attack on his spouse.
Reiterating his administration's resolve to tackle the elements which fomented violence, Musharraf singled out Sindh as the worst case scenario in a countrywide destruction that left 58 people dead and 89 injured. According to data released earlier by the Interior Ministry, 285 banks, 204 offices, 36 petrol pumps, 572 vehicles, 72 rail bogies, 27 stations and 802 shops were looted or set on fire across Pakistan.
“My mission is no different from that of Benazir’s — promotion of democracy, elimination of terror,” the President remarked. Naming Baitulla Mehsood and Mullah Fazalullah (of Swat), he said the terrorists who took Benazir's life were the ones who attacked a bus-load of school children in Kamra (NWFP), blew up namazis on Id day in Charsadda, twice tried to kill former interior minister Aftab Sherpao, and attacked air force personnel in Sargodha.
The eight-week breather the EC now has will be used to replace transparent ballot boxes and voters’ lists destroyed in attacks on its offices in Sindh and elsewhere. The Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) had demanded elections as per the original schedule. But they are expected to reconcile themselves to the new date after ritualistic protests.
The EC cannot legitimately be grudged the time it has secured to put its house in order. Besides, the interval will not alter the ground realities in the aftermath of Benazir’s murder. Public anger and outrage that is the best guarantee against any manipulation of popular verdict is unlikely to dissipate so early.
Observers are unanimous that it is the PPP’s best chance to come to power on its own. By accepting Zardari’s advice to withdraw its boycott of polls, the PML (N) leadership has sought to cut losses in its stronghold of Punjab which sends 148 members to the 272-strong National Assembly.
Other parties that have set up candidates are: PML (Q), Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Islam, Awami National Party and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).
Prominent among those boycotting the elections are the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami, Imran Khan’s PakistanTehreek-e-Insaaf and a conglomeration of smaller parties going by the name of All Parties’ Democratic Movement (APDM). They claim that free and fair polls are not possible under the present dispensation.