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Security a top concern for Pakistani voters in northwest city

In Peshawar, where frustration is high over President Musharraf's inability to stop rising insecurity, law-and-order issues could shape the outcome of Feb. 18 election.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 2008


Sultan Mohammed will cast his vote in parliamentary elections Monday. That could put him in a distinct minority in this northwestern corner of Pakistan, nearest the border areas with Afghanistan and the violence that has issued from them.

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Yet the reason he will take his family to the polls, braving the threat of suicide bombers, is precisely to defy them. "The most important issue in our country is law and order," says Mr. Mohammed, a bank officer. "We will give our vote to the party that will finish this terrorism."

He will not reveal which party that is, but he leaves no doubt as to the solution. "This law-and-order problem is because of our president, Pervez Musharraf."

Peshawar, the Pakistani city most touched by the rise of terrorism, offers the starkest example of how security could shape the course and outcome of Monday's election.

One leading politician suggests that fears of violence could drive turnout below 20 percent here. But for those who do vote, the election appears to have become an anti-Musharraf referendum, with a wide majority of voters holding him responsible for the increasing lawlessness in the neighboring tribal areas.

"We will use our power to vote against Musharraf," says Fazal Qadar, sitting beside Mohammed in the twilight.

This creates a curious predicament for the United States. Increasingly, Pakistanis share America's desire to uproot extremists from tribal areas, yet repudiate America's perceived agent in the antiterror fight, Mr. Musharraf, and his aggressive tactics.

This has made the United States the enemy in the very fight it wishes to conduct. Some 65 percent of Pakistanis agree that terrorists operating in Pakistan are a serious problem, according to a recent survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI). But 89 percent say that Pakistan should not cooperate with the United States in its war on terror.

Monday's vote is a way for Pakistanis to vent their frustration at Musharraf's capitulation to US interests, people here say. His strong offensives in the tribal areas – done at America's bidding, they suggest – have only inflamed the problem.

"This situation will be solved by talking to people, by making people accountable," says Umar Khan, an elderly resident getting a haircut in a local barber shop. "It is not solved by bullets – that makes the situation worse."

Nationwide, the issues of terrorism and law-and-order, collectively, run a distant second to inflation – 18 percent versus 55 percent – according to the IRI poll. But it has clearly become an important contributor the collapse of Musharraf's popularity across the country; his approval rating stands at 15 percent, according to IRI.

Here, within sight of the tribal areas, it is the primary concern, say candidates and residents. "The most important issue is security," says Masood, a resident of Peshawar's Hayatabad neighborhood, who offers only one name.