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Distrust marks Pakistan polls

A poll campaign marked by the fear of the bomb and driven by big money, the biradari system and the Bhutto legacy came to a violent close on Saturday, reports Vinod Sharma.
By Vinod Sharma | Hindustan Times, Islamabad
UPDATED ON FEB 17, 2008 02:06 AM IST

A poll campaign marked by the fear of the bomb and driven by big money, the biradari system and the Bhutto legacy came to a violent close on Saturday.

Marred by forebodings of a low February 18 turnout, the occasion lacked festivities or the hope of a clear verdict. As the candidates electioneered in armored vehicles and protective vests, the predominant mood was of distrust in the system’s ability to deliver.

“This is one election in which whoever wins, the people will lose,” predicted human rights activist and noted Pakistani commentator I.A. Rahman. “We will go down if the sarkari party (read PML-Q) wins. There will be conflict with the establishment in the event of a PPP-PML (Nawaz) victory,” he told HT.

Big Pakistani cities such as Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi and Peshawar are agog with the talk of what civil libertarians call pre-poll rigging. But even the less sanguine observers like Rahman and Dr Inayatullah of the Pakistan Council of Social Sciences admit that popular sentiment in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s December 27 assassination could help defeat the machinations of local bodies controlled by nazims (mayors) aligned with the Q League that lent a parliamentary veneer to President Pervez Musharraf’s military rule after the 2002 polls.

There is broad unanimity that Benazir’s brutal killing in Rawalpindi has made the Sindhis rally around her party in most constituencies barring the pro-Musharraf Muttahida Quami Movement’s strongholds in Karachi and Hyderabad. So tangible is the passion of the PPP cadres, popularly known as jiyalas that certain areas are veritable no-go zones for their rivals – former Sindh CM and MQM leader Arbab Ghulam Rahim airdropping campaign material in the Bhuttos’ hometown of Larkana.

But Sindh sends just 61 directly elected seats to the 272-member National Assembly where the winners and the losers are always decided by Punjab, the largest Pakistani province whose share of 148 seats alone is sufficient to fetch a party power in Islamabad.

“The battle for the Punjabi endorsement isn’t likely to be one-sided,” said Mumtaz Shah, a resident of Lahore who owns a newspaper in Balochistan. He said poll time rhetoric in the key province has virtually blurred the ideological lines between Nawaz Sharif’s PML faction and its Q offshoot headed by Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain.

In their quest for the right-wing vote, the former premiers have in their own way sought to reach out to Islamabad’s Lal Masjid’s imprisoned cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz. Even as Shujaat met him in the jail to discuss the terms of his release, Sharif went around accusing Musharraf of killing innocent people in the security operation to clear the mosque of Aziz’s supporters.

The scramble for the religio-political constituency can be explained by the Jamaat-e-Islami’s decision to boycott elections.

Historically, there has been discernible social empathy between the JI and the League supporters who, post-1988, worked together in the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) to contain the PPP. The Sharif-Shujaat right-wing race is for a larger share of the rudderless Jamaat vote.

So much so that the PML-N has also promised to usher in the shariat law Sharif failed to push through Parliament after his 1997 return to power. It’s current stance confirmed Benazir’s earlier charge that Sharif nursed ambitions of becoming Ameer-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful).

The other contradiction between the potential post-poll allies is the PPP’s ambivalence on restoration of the discarded higher judiciary and the PML-N’s demand upfront for the recall of judges sacked by Musharraf.

Can the Asif Zardari-led avowedly secular PPP live with Sharif’s stance on Lal Masjid? Is durable power sharing possible between the PML-N leader who talks of elevating as president the controversial nuclear scientist A Q Khan whom Benazir wanted handed over to the Americans?

Handling such contradictions will indeed be a tall order for a minority or a coalition regime. Zafarullah Khan of the Centre for Civic Education summed it up all with a laconic remark: “Our hybrid democracy (presided by a uniformed general) is graduating to become a democracy that’s hostage to illegal power and resources.”

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