Pakistan Braces for Election Trouble

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Rahat Dar / EPA

Billboards on a Lahore street advertise candidates for office in Pakistan's Parliamentary elections, to be held on February 18.

President Pervez Musharraf may not be up for reelection, but the unpopular former military chief knows as well as anyone that Monday's election in Pakistan is a referendum on his rule. An opposition victory could set in motion a process culminating in Musharraf's unseating — and it will very likely plunge Pakistan into a new wave of political turmoil.

Pakistan's President is elected by the legislature, as Musharraf was last October, although opponents continue to question the legal basis of his candidacy. But three opinion polls released this week reveal widespread antipathy towards the President. The International Republican Institute reported that Musharraf's job approval rating had fallen to a new low of 15% at the end of January, compared with 72% disapproval. A second survey, conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow, found 70% of Pakistanis wanting Musharraf to resign immediately. And a BBC World Service poll has found that a majority of Pakistanis believe Musharraf's resignation will restore the country's stability.

Musharraf, for his part, disparaged the surveys, accusing international pollsters of disturbing the peace. "Do not incite trouble in Pakistan by prejudging election results, by creating hopes and expectations that may be unrealistic," he said Thursday. "Let the results speak for themselves."

The problem is, few Pakistanis believe the results will be allowed to speak for themselves.

If, as the IRI survey suggests, Pakistanis vote overwhelmingly for opposition parties, Musharraf faces possible impeachment by the new parliament for his November declaration of emergency rule, in which he suspended the constitution, dismissed the Supreme Court and locked up thousands of political workers and civilian protesters.

"Musharraf cannot afford to hold free and fair elections," says Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister who was ousted by the then General Musharraf in a 1999 coup. "His own skin is at risk. He needs indemnity for his actions on November 3, which he cannot achieve if the opposition is in the majority." Sharif, who heads one of Pakistan's major parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, has been banned from running for a parliamentary seat by Musharraf's government. Musharraf's only option, says Sharif, is "rigging. The other option would be for him to leave quietly before the elections, but he missed that bus."

Musharraf has repeatedly assured Pakistanis that the elections will not be rigged, calling Monday's polls "the mother of all elections" and telling state TV, "Despite all the insinuation and apprehensions, the elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful." Independent election monitors disagree. Human Rights Watch claims to have obtained a recording made by a journalist interviewing Pakistan's Attorney General Malik Qayyum by phone. In the course of the interview, Qayyum takes a call on a second line, and urges the unidentified caller to leave Sharif's party in favor of a ticket with another, unnamed party. The transcript, in Urdu, quotes Qayyum as saying, "They will massively rig to get their own people to win. If you can get a ticket from these guys, take it." The recording is available as an audio file on the Human Rights Watch website. Qayyum denied the HRW allegation, calling it "ridiculous ... extremely malicious and defamatory," and a "conspiracy against Pakistan."

The authorities are certainly taking care to manage the dissemination of the election results. Pakistan's Election Commission has released new rules prohibiting journalists from reporting on results or exit polls on election day; only tallies announced by the Election Commission can be reported. The government has prohibited exit polls, saying that they "create chaos, are misleading and give rise to rumors." Of course, they can also be a reliable check on election results. "This is yet another restriction on the type of commentary and prognostication of polling that the government doesn't want to see," says Imran Aslam, president Geo TV, Pakistan's most popular channel. "They are obviously concerned about any kind of independent observation with people in the field... We weren't doing just exit polls, we were able to get a progressive look at the outcomes and in a scientific matter predict results. This may have hit the [government's] panic button."

Some critics are warning, however, that there may be more to election-rigging in Pakistan than possible ballot stuffing, manipulation of postal votes and intimidation on voting day. Bilal Mehboob, of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, suggests that much of the machinery to sway the result may have already been put in place. "My suspicion is that the ruling party has picked those constituencies that are expected to be a close fight," says Mehboob. "They have placed staff there that they can trust. If the right candidate does not appear to be winning, there will be some methods taken to change that vote count. It is very strategic, well planned and done in a sophisticated manner that does not involve too many people." Backing up his suspicions, he clams that in some constituencies, election staffers were changed at the last minute. Others were hired that lacked the right credentials, such as literacy.

The threat of violence can also serve political purposes. An opposition Pakistan People's Party rally in Faisalabad on Thursday was marred by televised ticker-tape warnings that a suspected suicide bomber had entered the city, discouraging attendance. It was to have been one of the PPP's largest campaign events, attended by Asif Zardari, husband of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Organizers had expected some 25,000 supporters, but only half that number arrived. Housewife Nasim Nawar said fears of a terror attack had kept many at home. "Not everybody wants to sacrifice his or her life to support Zardari," she says. "But whether or not they come today, they will vote for PPP." That's only if they go to the polls, of course.

It won't take much to dissuade people from turning out to vote, says PPP candidate Farahnaz Ispahani. "If there is a threat of violence, the first thing people do is keep their women and children safe." This could have a particularly strong impact on the PPP, which is expecting a strong, cross-party sympathy vote from women.

Still, Nawaz Sharif believes that anti-Musharraf sentiment is so strong that opposition parties will overcome minor manipulation in the polls and will still be able to form a government. "Even if the election is rigged to some degree, it won't be a problem for us," he says. "But if it's rigged massively, I can't predict what will happen." Zardari can — he's promised to take to the streets in massive civil protests if the results show less than the predicted PPP victory. Public sentiment seems to follow. "It will be unbelievable if the PPP does not get a majority," says Abdul Satar, a textile worker. "If that happens we will not hesitate to go out and protest."

Musharraf is ready for trouble, warning that "If people think they can come on streets after the elections, nothing of that sort will be allowed. Let this serve as a warning to all those who think they can disturb the peace of the country. Do not test the resolve of the government." Plainly, regardless of what the polls indicate, Musharraf is not expecting to be rebuked by the electorate on Monday.