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Bloodshed, cheating feared in Pak polls

The stakes are high but spirits low as Pakistanis face one of the most crucial elections in their country's history.
By Robin Mc Dowell | AP, Islamabad
UPDATED ON FEB 15, 2008 12:50 PM IST

The stakes are high but enthusiasm appears low as Pakistanis face one of the most crucial elections in their history. The assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, the absence of charismatic candidates and the fear of rigging have left many wondering if going to the polls is worth it. "It all seems so futile," said Ghulam Jilani, 36, flipping through his newspaper on the side of a dusty road in Quetta as taxis and trucks zipped by. "Why should I put my life at risk to cast a ballot?"



Campaigning itself has been remarkably subdued, with the December 27, 2007 assassination of Bhutto leaving many in the South Asian nation of 160 million feeling gutted as they prepare to pick a new parliament. That slaying, and a suicide bombing on her homecoming parade two months earlier, left more than 150 people dead.



More than 35 others have been killed this week in two separate attacks targeting campaign rallies, both blamed on Islamic militants.



Though momentum has picked up in recent days, candidates have largely abstained from staging massive demonstrations, instead going door-to-door to drum up support or hanging banners along roadsides. That has made this campaign one of the most colourless and lackluster in the country's 60-year history.



"We're not seeing any of the hustle and bustle we've seen in past elections," lamented Mohammad Sharif, a 55-year-old journalist in Karachi, noting so much was at stake.



One of the new parliament's most crucial tasks will be determining how to fight Al-Qaida- and Taliban-linked militants, who have expanded their reach beyond traditional areas bordering Afghanistan in the volatile northwest. Another will be to ensure the country's nuclear arsenal does not fall into the wrong hands. President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and went on to become a key US ally in the war on terror, says Monday's vote is a crucial step in the country's transition to democracy. He is not contesting the ballot, but recent opinion polls predicting a landslide opposition win could make him vulnerable to impeachment.



But steps taken in the run-up to the election, from purging the judiciary to restricting press freedoms, have sapped enthusiasm from voters and activists. Musharraf has said the moves were necessary to fight terrorism, but critics claim he is only trying to secure his grip on power.



"Musharraf wants a government of puppets, so he can serve and please his foreign masters," said Zaheer Taj of Multan, 37 and unemployed.



Though many people said fear would keep them from the polls on Monday, others said Bhutto's death had bolstered their resolve. "If she can sacrifice her life for us, why can't we do it for her?" said Mohammed Sadiq, 65, a retired factory worker after walking 30 kilometers (18 miles) from his village near Faisalabad to attend a campaign rally held on Thursday by Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who has taken over the helm of the opposition Pakistan People's Party.



It is expected to rake in more than half the votes on Monday, according to a survey by the US government-funded International Republican Institute, with the opposition party led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif pulling in another 20 per cent. That would give them the two-thirds majority needed to impeach Musharraf, if they chose to do so.



Like many others, however, Zia Khan, a 35-year-old shopkeeper in Lahore, said he had no intention of voting.



"I am not crazy," he said, adding he would spend the election day at home with his family. "I know, as well as you, there is a suicide blast every day. And what difference will a single vote make? None."



Many people believe that, if Musharraf's party is trounced by opponents as opinion polls predict, he will rig or delay the vote _ as has been commonplace in the past Pakistani elections. The 64-year-old leader promised on Thursday that would not happen. "Despite all rumors, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful," he insisted in a televised address. "They will also be held on time."



For some, the main concern is a major outbreak of political violence if the opposition believes the election results have been manipulated. Highlighting those fears, a gunfight between Bhutto and Musharraf's supporters on Thursday in the south wounded seven people. "I know it's bad, but I might not vote," said Naeem Akhtar, a 35-year-old electronics appliances dealer in Quetta. "Losing your life or a limb is even worse."



Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Kahuta, Stephen Graham in Faisalabad, Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Khalid Tanveer in Multan and Asif Shahzad in Lahore contributed to this report.

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