Apprehension Palpable Ahead of Feb. 18 Elections in Pakistan

Tight security has marked Pakistan's election campaign, with violence always lurking nearby. The polls are slated for Feb. 18. (Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN)

With just days to go before the general election, colorful flags and election banners flutter in the winter breeze across towns and cities in Pakistan.

But the sense of festivity that usually marks elections in Pakistan is largely absent. A deep sense of apprehension is palpable, and people remain reluctant to join in the rallies and corner meetings.

The months leading up to the polls scheduled for Feb. 18 have been marred by a series of deadly suicide bombings.

One of these, in Rawalpindi on Dec. 27, killed Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and popular opposition leader. Her assassination triggered widespread rioting, particularly in the southern province of Sindh—Benazir’s ancestral home.

A suicide bombing at a political rally by the Awami National Party (A.N.P.) in Charsadda in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province on Feb. 9 killed 27 people. Two days later another suicide blast at a rally by the same party in the tribal area of North Waziristan killed 10 more, Pakistani media reported.

Staying Away

In other parts of the country there have been at least eight other murders linked to electoral rivalry. Political parties, including the Pakistan People's Party (P.P.P.) of the late Benazir Bhutto have continued to hold rallies, but the threat of attacks has kept many away.

"I have been an active participant in every election campaign in Pakistan since 1970. I have regularly attended political meetings so I can hear and see the top leaders speak. But this time, I am staying well away and have ordered my sons to do the same," said Azizullah Sheikh, who runs a bakery in Lahore.

"The risk of suicide blasts is too big to take," Sheikh said.

Fears of Rigging

There is continued conjecture that the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (P.M.L.-Q), which is affiliated with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, may attempt to rig polls to ensure victory for themselves.

For weeks, the Pakistani media has been dominated by reports of malpractice and the abuse of power in favor of candidates of the party.

"No attempt to intervene with the polling process will be tolerated," said P.P.P. leader Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir, speaking to the media in Lahore on Feb. 12.

The possibility that such an attempt may be made has led to fears of post-poll violence, pitching political parties against each other in what could be a bloody clash, say experts.

Other scenarios being painted are no less violent.

Popular opposition figure Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27—sparking a wave of violence in her native province of Sindh. (Photo: David Swanson/IRIN)

Could Polls Be Sabotaged?

They include the possibility of the polls being deliberately sabotaged by the P.M.L.-Q to ward off defeat by encouraging unrest in various places, in the hope that a delay will help them re-build a shattered campaign.

At least two recent public opinion polls give the P.M.L.-Q less than 15 percent of the vote.

"The party cannot win a fair election," said P.P.P. spokesman Farhatullah Babar, while P.M.L.-Q Chairman Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain insists: "We will gain a huge victory."

Adding to a potentially unstable situation is high inflation—taking many essential food items out of the reach of ordinary people, most of whom live on a monthly income of under $65. An energy crisis, which has led to prolonged cuts in power and gas supplies, has added to frustrations.

The situation is thus potentially volatile, with little certainty that the election will bring the peace and calm that most in the country hope for and which is essential for any improvement in the quality of their lives. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.