Islamabad, Pakistan — By calling Pakistan's first election since he seized power nearly eight years ago, has Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq opened a process he may find difficult to control? ``No,'' the old politicians scoff.
Because of the restrictive nature of today's election, anyone who comes to parliament will be amenable to the perpetuation of President Zia's rule.
Not so, say the Islamic fundamentalists, who are contesting 62 seats. They believe that the rigid men of religion will have parliamentary sway for the first time in Pakistan's history.
This could present a great challenge to Zia who is not a fundamentalist though he is a devout Muslim.
Less impassioned observers agree that General Zia has most certainly taken a risk and that he could be faced with 50 to 60 hard-line dissidents in the 237-seat parliament.
It is hardly an exercise in Jeffersonian democracy, but pressures around Zia have reportedly begun to mount -- both from Washington and from some circles in the Army -- that nearly eight years of martial law were clearly more than enough.
Thus the mere size of the turnout has become as important an issue as who actually wins a seat.
General Zia says he will be satisfied if there is a 40 percent turnout, which would be in line with previous electoral trends. Although there are some indications that the rural participation could be this high, the urban vote is being projected at 20 percent. It is in the cosmopolitan centers that the ruling generals are most disliked.
Badly shaken by a low turnout for a controversial referendum in December, which he nevertheless interpreted as a mandate for five more years of his rule, Zia was exposed, says one political observer, as ``an emperor without his clothes.''
Despite an official government figure of a turnout of 62 percent, official sources have confirmed that the real turnout was between 20 and 25 percent.
In Lahore, the sophisticated capital of the Pakistani state of Punjab, the turnout was only 12 to 15 percent, according to an Army intelligence report. Large numbers of military men were on the voting lists in that city.
General Zia was thus substantially weakened. Whatever the real figures, they are known to the armed forces, collectively referred to as the President's ``club.'' It was, after all, the Army that supervised the December vote.
With some morale problems showing up in the ranks, and incipient dissatisfaction among a growing number of field grade officers and brigadiers, there is believed to be a discernible, growing feeling that martial law should come to an end -- that the generals should finally retire, or go back to the barracks, opening promotions that have been frozen for years.
In fact, there are now so many generals in the Army, and so few posts to fill, that in Abbottabad a brigadier general in uniform now heads the Bernhall School, which was formerly run by the Catholic Church.
This reporter went to Abbottabad after being told it had one of the ``hot'' electoral contests, in this election without themes, and with political parties and rallies banned.
The two contenders are Gohur Ayub -- son of Pakistan's first martial law ruler, Gen. Ayub Khan -- and Raja Sikandar Zaman.
When asked about the latter, this reporter's driver, a sophisticated, articulate young man, responded, ``He's no one important. I've never heard of him.''
The candidate turned out to be the minister of power and natural resources. He could well go down to defeat, as could many of other of General Zia's ministers, in a vote against the martial law regime.
``What was the minister's campaign platform?'' a cluster of men in a courtyard in Haripur Township were asked.
``He's telling us,'' responded a man named Anwar wearing a traditional Pathan frontier cap, ``that if we don't vote for him he'll cut off our electricity. . . .
``He's set up his own fiefdom in the power department. He'll still have his friends,'' even if he loses the election.
There were about 200 people at the unofficial campaign rally in the courtyard of the sprawling house in Northwest Frontier Province. In all, it was perhaps one-third full.
Just across the road was a water buffalo auction. At least a thousand people were there, laughing and shoving to get a proper view.
``Aren't you going across to the election meeting,'' a group of fierce-looking Pathans were asked.
``This is what I think of the elections,'' one of them responded, brandishing his shotgun in the air.
``Begging your pardon, we must leave now,'' the driver said, somewhat hurriedly.
It seemed out of character for the quiet young man. We drove to a nearby gas station, dirty and littered with debris.
He asked to be excused for five minutes. It was nearly sunset, and he wanted to face Mecca and say his last daily prayer. He knelt, with rubbish all around him, then returned to the car and started his imported cassette recorder.