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

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.

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."

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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.

His house sits less than a mile from the Federally Administered Tribal Agency (FATA). At times, militants move in to open plots under cover of night and fire rockets at military installations, he says. A nearby school has received threatening letters regarding coeducation.

Like other residents, Masood blames Musharraf's government for "fighting a foreign fight on our own soil." According to polls, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP) – both secular, liberal parties – have capitalized best on the issue. Yet also like many other residents, Masood has not found any party to his liking.

Shopper Ghundra Gul has the same difficulty. She has come to Peshawar with a group from her village to make preparations for a wedding – a companion says they would not have left the house otherwise, fearing suicide bombers. Young and fluent in English, she dismisses all of Pakistan's parties as inadequate to face the terrorism threat: "We've tried them all, and they've proved us all wrong."

For his part, Masood cites a different problem: He has no idea who is running, and that has never happened before. Usually, elections here are like Carnival, with processions pushing through Peshawar's streets, hundreds strong, music blaring. But not this year. Last week, a suicide bomber blew himself up at an ANP rally 20 miles away, killing 25 people.

"People are afraid of suicide missions," says Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a candidate for the provincial assembly and leader of ANP's provincial delegation.

That includes candidates. Saying he draws his strength from the Koran, which urges followers not to fear death, Mr. Bilour says: "Today I have an open meeting on a roadside... If I am going to die, I am going to die. It is all done by the grace of God."

Many voters, however, are not as committed. Asked if either he or his family would vote, Mr. Khan, from the barber shop, is succinct: "Never ever."

"If the government cannot take responsibility for our safety, why should we sacrifice?" he asks. If a family loses a father, he adds, "who will take care of it? The family is dashed."

The provincial chief of the Election Commission, Akhtar Hussain Sabir, says that good security measures are in place, with 17 companies of soldiers to be deployed and even retired police officers to be activated as reserves. But he acknowledges that nothing is foolproof, saying only, "Let us hope for the best."

In this atmosphere, Bilour of the ANP says he would be surprised if turnout here in North West Frontier Province topped 20 percent. A poll by Gallup Pakistan released today is more optimistic. According to the nationwide poll, only 9 percent of respondents said they would not vote. Some 52 percent said the chances of them voting was high.

Here in Peshawar, opposition parties say that their greatest opportunity to bring out voters is in making the election about security and about Musharraf's failure to ensure it.

Every evening, Sayed Yunus canvasses the neighborhoods of Peshawar for the ANP, exhorting people to vote. His argument is well-rehearsed: "I try to tell them that if we don't come out to vote, the status quo will continue and chaos will continue in our province."

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