Bhutto's legacy propels Pakistan People's Party ahead of election

Her party is expected to do well in Feb. 18 parliamentary polls, analysts say.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Campaigning: Jehangir Bader, of the Pakistan People's Party once led by Benazir Bhutto, greets voters in Lahore, Pakistan.
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    Rooftop onlookers in Lahore, Pakistan, watch a rally of Pakistan People's Party (PPP) candidate Jehangir Bader, whose banner hangs over the alley.
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    Mr. Bader campaigns in Anar Kali market in Lahore, Pakistan.
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On the streets of Lahore, the election campaign is in crescendo. A crowd surges through narrow streets, leaving party flags as a man with a megaphone cries: "The blood of Bhutto will bring a revolution."

Technically, this rally is for Jehangir Bader, one of the Pakistan People's Party's (PPP) top candidates. But even for Mr. Bader, Bhutto is the only name in this campaign: "This is all her support on which we are capitalizing."

For the PPP, the Feb. 18 parliamentary election is about their slain leader – her name in every slogan, her face on every billboard – and in death, she could push her party to victory, with one poll suggesting that half the nation supports her party.

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"You don't know why we have committed our vote to PPP?" asks Mohammed Suleiman, a shopkeeper who says he has always voted for the PPP's major opponents. "Benazir Bhutto has sacrificed her life."

As the party most clearly aligned with US interests, including a desire to fight terrorists and willingness to work with President Pervez Musharraf, the rise of the PPP could herald a revival of the partnership that the US has long sought – lending the democratic legitimacy of Ms. Bhutto's party to Mr. Musharraf's pro-US policies.

Yet everything hinges on election day. PPP officials say they expect to win a majority of seats in the National Assembly. Analysts and pollsters don't make such a bold prediction, but they agree the PPP is ascendant.

If results don't bear this out, and there is suspicion of tampering to help Musharraf's political allies, Bhutto's husband and current party leader, Asif Zardari, has forecast violence, implying that the PPP will take to the streets.

Still, it increasingly appears that the PPP will benefit as many seek to honor Bhutto's sacrifice. "It is the sympathy vote, nothing else," says Shafqat Mahmood, a columnist for The News, a national newspaper.

The PPP is planning to hold a massive rally in Faisalabad today to build on its momentum. Recent polls have underlined the commanding lead that the PPP has taken ahead of Monday's election. The largest poll yet conducted about the upcoming Pakistani elections, by the International Republican Institute (IRI), found that half of Pakistanis say they prefer the PPP.

A second, by Terror Free Tomorrow, suggests that 36.7 percent of Pakistanis favor the PPP, with its nearest competition 11 percentage points behind. Both organizations are based in the US and have conducted several surveys in Pakistan ahead of the election.

Along the route of Bader's rally through Lahore, Mumtaz Ali Khan stands outside his necktie shop in Anar Kali market, awaiting Bader's arrival with a PPP pin and a broad smile.

He says he has always supported former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League. But this time he will vote for the PPP to honor "not only Benazir but her whole family," noting how her father, also a former prime minister, was executed by a military dictator on what most Pakistanis say were unjust charges.

In Pakistan, where corruption is a common charge for politicians, including Bhutto, the family's sacrifice has atoned for her missteps. Says longtime PML-N supporter, Sajjab Khalid: "She gave her life for the country."

Bhutto had laid out a platform that found considerable agreement with US foreign policy aims – even when it was questioned by members of her party. She insisted terrorism was a serious threat to Pakistan, even though it made her a target. And despite considerable personal animosity, she was willing to work with Musharraf to maintain national stability.

Mr. Zardari has insisted he will stick to Bhutto's policy. Bader says he will consider nothing else. "I look at her mission, her thoughts, her struggle for inspiration," he says.

Both policies will be tested in coming months if the PPP finds itself in a leadership role. The IRI roll put Musharraf's approval rating at 15 percent. Cooperating with him could alienate many who voted for the PPP – especially since 62 percent of Pakistanis believe Musharraf's government was behind Bhutto's assassination, says the IRI poll.

It leaves Zardari in a difficult situation – attempting to follow Bhutto's will without her charisma or popularity. "It's not going to be easy to work with Musharraf because of this history," says Mr. Mahmood, the columnist. "The question is whether Zardari wants to upset the apple cart immediately," he adds.

For Zardari, who was widely seen as being corrupt during his wife's two terms as prime minister, it will be an early test of his leadership. For the moment, however, the party is firmly behind him. "To lead such a big party is difficult," says Bader. But Zardari is Bhutto's widower, and "there would not be so much consensus about any other leader," he adds.

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