In Pakistani election, a big swing vote
In Punjab, which picks 148 of 272 parliamentary seats on Feb. 18, many remain undecided.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."