In Pakistani election, a big swing vote

In Punjab, which picks 148 of 272 parliamentary seats on Feb. 18, many remain undecided.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Swing voters: Undecided voters in Punjab could play a major role in Monday's election. Mohammed Tariq (center) says he likes both leading opposition parties.
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    Pro-Musharraf: Safdar Ali of Chandni, a village, says he will vote for the PML-Q because it supports President Pervez Musharraf. "What is going on in this country can only be contained by a dictatorship," he explains.
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    Undecided? Punjabis like Mehmood Ahmed Khan have less predictable voting patterns than Pakistanis from the country's other three provinces do.
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By the measure of Pakistani politics, Mohammed Yunus just made an extraordinary statement.

The bearded salesman sits in front of his menswear store, speaking of Pakistan's two largest parties, run by longtime archrivals Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto.

"Both parties are very good," he says, adding that he would be happy if either party won.

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Like many along this street, his allegiances are split, and in Pakistani politics – where devotion to candidates based on patronage, party, and clan can border on the feudal – they are precious. These people are Pakistan's swing voters, and overwhelmingly, they come from only one province, Punjab.

Monday's election drama is likely to be distilled to the bazaars and fields of this Pakistani heartland. Punjab will almost certainly determine who leads Pakistan alongside President Pervez Musharraf, experts say. Therefore, it is here that rigging will be the greatest concern, they add.

"The entire province has a swing factor," says Ijaz Gilani, president of Gallup Pakistan, a polling firm.

The result will be watched closely in the United States. US officials are increasingly seeing Pakistan's tribal belt as America's greatest security threat. Militants there have been linked to terrorist plots from Madrid to London. What the Bush administration wants most is political stability and a prime minister who will support antiterror efforts in the tribal regions.

Punjab's electoral importance stems from its size and character. With nearly 100 million people, it contains 55 percent of the Pakistani populace. And while voting patterns in the other three provinces are predictable, Punjab is prone to subtle shifts, which, given its population, can dramatically shift the balance of power in Pakistan's National Assembly.

In the past, a shift of 10 percent toward any one party has resulted in as many as 100 of the 272 seats changing hands, according to Dr. Gilani.

The statistic could be directly relevant Monday. Opinion polls suggest that support for the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), has fallen 10 percentage points in recent months, with Pakistanis blaming the government for recent spikes in inflation and violence. Given that PML-Q is almost exclusively a Punjabi party, the election in Punjab has become a race to claim these swing voters.

In and around Gujranwala, where PML-Q holds five of seven National Assembly seats, interviews suggest that other parties could make headway Monday, with as many as three of the seats possibly changing parties. Even outside the city, where the PML-Q says its strength lies, residents say they want change.

In the village of Chandni, where rickshaws give way to tractors and fields of cabbage press up against back doors, Mohammed Tariq takes a break from sawing an old stump for firewood. "We don't have any soft spot for PML-Q because we are laborers and they have given us nothing," he says. "They have offered benefits only to the bigwigs.

Polls suggest that Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has benefited most, largely because of the sympathy vote for the former leader, who was assassinated Dec. 27. Even in Punjab, seen to be the stronghold of Mr. Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the PPP is leading, according to a poll by the US-based International Republican Institute.

"After Benazir Bhutto's death, the PPP has been the beneficiary of PML-Q's decline," says Gilani of Gallup.

Yet he cautions that parliamentary elections sometimes defy opinion polls, since they are 272 individual contests with different candidates and complexities. For that reason, PML-Q could do well in constituencies where it has fielded candidates who are influential or can rely on caste ties for votes.

That is happening in the nearby village of Koth Faizabad, where Mehmood Ahmed Khan says he will vote for a PML-Q candidate who is from his clan. Even so, he says he has no love for the Q-League. "It has damaged its reputation because of the price hikes," he says.

Experts say that the PML-Q will probably fall short of the 90 seats it claims it will win. And that has given rise to fears of fraud here.

It is a serious concern for the US. If the vote is seen to be rigged in favor of PML-Q, opposition parties have vowed to take to the streets – and Mr. Musharraf has vowed to stop them. It risks igniting violence and a collapse of Pakistan's democratic institutions – instability that the US desperately wants to avoid.

In Gujranwala, observers say the government has brought in a new chief officer to oversee the election – a move contrary to the Election Commission's code of conduct. Some fear the caretaker government, sympathetic to PML-Q, is stocking districts with officers more willing to do its bidding.

It is one of the complaints that opposition parties say the Election Commission has overlooked. Human Rights Watch said earlier this week that Musharraf's hand-picked Election Commission had taken little action on such complaints, raising "serious questions about its impartiality."

Meanwhile, election observers admit that their task is overwhelming. One group, the Free and Fair Election Network, says it will send 497 observers to cover some 1,800 polling stations in this one electoral district.

Falsifying the returns of 50 polling stations of the 300 in each constituency could be enough to change the outcome of that race, suggests Shafqat Mahmood, a former senator and now a columnist for The News, a national daily. "It can be rigged," he says. "And so much is at stake."

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