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PPP-Nawaz bonding signals post-poll axis

Benazir’s legacy may fetch her party a legislative presence in all the four provinces, reports Vinod Sharma. TimelinePakistan votes | PicsIn a fragile state | Video'Elections a fraud' | VideoBig Idea | Amit BaruahTwo nations, two choices
By Vinod Sharma | Hindustan Times, Rawalpindi
UPDATED ON FEB 19, 2008 02:40 AM IST

In this city that is home to the army leadership, the very palpable social entente between supporters of the PPP and the PML’s Nawaz faction on election day afforded a peep into what the future holds for a deeply tormented Pakistan.

Officially, 12 people died in polling widely expected to be bloody, though reports claimed some two dozen had been killed. Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari said PPP alone had lost 15 men.

There was no official word on the turnout at the time of going to press. Some TV channels though, were reporting 35 per cent voting, and a Pakistani NGO put the figure at 42.

In Rawalpindi, voting was largely peaceful. Slogans of Jiye Bhutto rent the air as boisterous supporters of both the PPP and PML (N) rode past Liaquat Bagh, where Benazir fell to a gun-bomb attack on December 27. A short distance away, young men astride open jeeps and motorcycles swathed in party flags converged at PML-Q leader Sheikh Rashid’s Lal Haveli that has stood like an invincible political fortress since the 1985 party-less polls under Gen Zia.

Giving each other the right to way, the Q League's rivals slowed down a bit to honk madly outside the imposing haveli named after its red façade. The PPP-PML cadres pincer movement against the pro-Musharraf League augurs well for Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif's pledge to work together to make Parliament sovereign in the country's affairs.

Influenced by allegations of pre-poll rigging, skeptics weren't willing to wager on the final outcome till the Election Commission announced the results.

From the overall mood, however, Rashid's uninterrupted 22-year rein seemed as threatened in Rawalpindi as the Q League's national quest to regain power in Islamabad. In a fair verdict, the PPP-PML-N combine are widely expected to win a majority in 268 of the 272 national assembly seats that went to polls on Monday.

Observers here believe the envisioned coalition would strengthen the federation weakened otherwise by the Q and Nawaz League's election-time focus on Punjab at the expense of smaller provinces. The PPP reasserted its claim of being a pan-Pakistan party as leaders of the two leagues barely ventured out of their home base.

In the final tally, Benazir's legacy could fetch her party a legislative presence in all the four provinces, a major chunk of it coming from Sindh and Punjab as also the NWFP, where the disintegration of the religio-political Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal could help the secular Awami National Party. Early trends showed ANP chief Asfandyar Wali leading in Charsadda and Swabi.

However, the downside of it all will be the absence of many top leaders in the new House. From the PML-N, 'graft' cases disqualified Nawaz and his brother Shahbaz from contesting the polls. Zardari too is out of the contest and so is the exiled Altaf Hussain of the Muttahida Quami Movement. There also no certainty that the Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Islam's Maulana Fazlur Rahman will win from the two seats he is contesting.

Known in India for his belligerence on Kashmir and the snide remarks he made about then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's hearing impairment, Rashid worked hard to become, like the army's power seat, a constant in Rawalpindi's contemporary history. He never looked back after defeating the PPP's General Tikka Khan at the height of the Benazir wave in 1988.

Regardless of the final outcome, Rashid's dwindling clout among his constituents explains the imponderables of Election-2008 that many have come to view as a referendum on General Pervez Musharraf.

That he betrayed Sharif after the 2002 polls has only made matters worse for the street smart ethnic Kashmiri.

His current profile is that of a man who joined Musharraf's kitchen cabinet, going back on the promise to keep in "fixed deposit" for Sharif the mandate he got in Pindi.

Ironically, the PML-N supremo, whose shouting brigade Rashid led against Benazir during the undivided League's rule in the early 1990s, is all set to forge a post poll alliance with the PPP. If all goes well, their partnership could draw smaller parties such as the ANP into the national alliance.

Musharraf has promised a working relationship with the winners. But his final stand will be determined by the composition of new Parliament.

Sharif wants no truck with him and the PPP is yet to reveal its mind on the issue that drove many voters to the polling stations.

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