As Pakistanis go to the polls today, their freest election in more than a decade is clouded by the shadow of the military. Since the death of military strong man Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in August, the Pakistani Army has stayed on the sidelines as the country geared up to vote. Civilians' election enthusiasm, however, is tempered by suspicion from long years under military rule.
Many voters expect the military to pull strings in post-election jockeying after a close race.
``Zia's name has disappeared in this campaign, but his legacy lives on,'' says Mushahid Hussain, a political commentator. ``By politicizing the military, he has narrowed the political spectrum.''
The Army hand is already evident, observers say, in moves to beef up the alliance running against candidate Benazir Bhutto.
Ms. Bhutto, daughter of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was overthrown by Zia in 1977 and later executed, has shed her father's controversial left-wing policies and tried to reassure the military.
``It will be difficult under the present state in Pakistan for any civilian government to survive without the support of the armed forces,'' Bhutto admitted this week.
Although nervous about the mass appeal and socialist past of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples' Party, the Army is ready to accept a government headed by Bhutto, military and political sources say. Army intelligence has predicted that Bhutto, who has pledged not to cut the defense budget, could win handily.
The Army has stayed out of the political limelight in recent months because it has tired of the controversy and public abuse heeped on it during the Zia years, Pakistanis say. Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, the new Army chief of staff, shuns a political role and has raised hopes within the Army that promotions will be based on merit and not contacts.
``The vast majority of the generals are clearly apolitical,'' says a former Army officer with government ties. ``If Benazir comes to power, not one general is going to be hurt in any way, and the generals know it.''
Still, many political observers say the Army has backed steps by the interim government that strengthen the chances of the Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA), the nine-party coalition opposing Bhutto.
Acting President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who is advised by a council of military officers and Zia allies, kept Zia's political appointees in office despite calls for their resignations. Nawaz Sharif - a Zia ally, powerful provincial chief minister, and the IDA's leading candidate for prime minister - has extensively used government helicopters, media, and other resources while campaigning.
A controversial issue is the goverment requirement, upheld by a Pakistani court just five days ago, that voters must carry national identity cards. The provision is considered a blow to Bhutto, who is widely supported by peasants and laborers, many of whom do not have cards.
Some analysts fault Bhutto's party for not organizing cards for supporters. Indeed, Bhutto has reportedly lost her own identity card. In fact, this week - with foreign television crews flooding her hometown to film her casting a ballot - party officals were scrambling to obtain a new card for her.
Diplomats and Pakistanis say the identity-card issue could lead to clashes. The government had said no one should come to a polling booth without a card; Bhutto has urged supporters to show up, card or not.
``It's taken a long time for people to believe elections would be held,'' says one analyst. ``They don't want to be cheated'' of the chance to vote.
Equally controversial, analysts say, will be the election aftermath. Of the 217-member National Assembly, 215 seats are at stake. Bhutto has projected she will win a simple majority. Observers say she needs 115 seats to give her a solid base.
Under the Constitution, however, the president holds the power to appoint the next prime minister - one who can win majority support in the Assembly. Constitutional loopholes could give room for manipulation by establishment politicians or the military if the race is close, observers say.
Anticipating a post-election dispute, Bhutto has called a meeting of constitutional experts tomorrow in Karachi.
Also important are elections for Pakistan's four provincial assemblies on Nov. 19. Sind, Bhutto's home province and the base of the Mohajir Quami movement, is being closely watched. The movement, a growing political force supported by Mohajirs (Muslims who emigrated from India), could trade its support in a national Bhutto government for her backing in the provincial contest.