Pakistan: Musharraf allies' election prospects fade
Many cite economic woes as campaigning for the Feb. 18 election picks up Friday.
A crowd has gathered around Sitara Begum. With sarcasm and desperation, she pronounces that she will give her vote in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections to anyone who can give her a portion of clarified cooking butter. Onlookers laugh, not mocking but commiserating.Skip to next paragraph
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The election campaign is now getting under way in earnest, with slain leader Benazir Bhutto's party planning its first campaign rally Saturday, now that the 40-day ritual mourning period has ended. But as the world worries about terrorism, across Pakistan that fear is mixed with other, more basic concerns: how to afford dinner or stay warm amid inflation and hours-long power outages.
These are the issues – largely overlooked outside Pakistan – that are perhaps most likely to motivate Pakistanis on election day. Interviews here as well as opinion polls suggest that Pakistanis want new leadership. While they have no great hope that anyone else is the solution, they agree it is time to give someone other than President Pervez Musharraf and his allies a chance.
"Because of the high prices of commodities, people have changed their priorities and want to vote for some other party," says Mohammed Akram, standing in front of the government store, wrapped in a red checkered scarf to ward off the cold. "This government has cast off the poor."
The discontent hints at what could become Musharraf's next crisis. As president, he is not competing in these elections. But the parliamentary allies that have ruled alongside him for the past five years could take the brunt of the public's anger, and if they are the big losers Feb. 18 – as many experts predict – that would leave Musharraf without support in a hostile parliament.
For example, if the major opposition parties – Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – combine to win more than two-thirds of the seats, they could try to sideline Musharraf or perhaps even remove him from office. This would be Musharraf's greatest incentive to tamper with the election results, experts say, to give himself some political cover or even to propel his supporters in the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) to victory.
PML-Q leaders say they have strong support in the rural areas of Pakistan's most populous and powerful state, Punjab. They say they can win 100 of 272 seats being contested in these polls – or 36 percent – enough to make them essentially the winners, given the number of parties contesting.
"PML-Q thinks that [Musharraf] is supportive of their top leadership, so they have mutual support for each other," says Talat Masood, a former Army general who is now an independent analyst in Islamabad.