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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."