M A I N   N E W S

Opinion polls predict hung parliament
Afzal Khan writes from Islamabad

Pakistan is all set to go to the polls tomorrow. The election, billed to be one of most crucial in country’s history, will take place amid pervasive uncertainty, sporadic violence and widespread scepticism being expressed by opposition and political analysts about fairness and transparency.

Analysts and opinion polls, however, indicate that the elections would throw up a hung parliament with no party emerging with single largest majority. While most pollsters have predicted that the Pakistan People’s Party will emerge as a front runner followed by Nawaz Sharif faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PLML-N), President Musharraf in an interview to London’s The Independent said the PML-Q and he MQM would “certainly” win majority.

Most observers believe that Musharraf’s own future is on stake in the elections and a defeat for his supporters would spell the beginning of an end to his nine-year authoritarian rule.

Those who have boycotted the elections argue that Musharraf would have to manipulate a majority for this reason. The run-up to the elections was marred by violence, the deadliest being the one that killed one of country’s most popular and internally recognised leader, Benazir Bhutto. Suicide bombers attacked security forces and political rallies. The security concerns are likely to impact the turn out which most analysts predict would be the lowest ever.

The PPP expects to win sympathy vote which would be highest in rural Sindh while pro-Musharraf parties hope that postponement of elections after Benazir’s assassination on December 27 for about 40 days has worked to considerably reduce its extent in other provinces, including the all-important Punjab province.

Analysts say PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari’s decision to stay confined to Naudero for 40-day mourning had denied the party a chance to keep the sympathy wave alive.

Former premier Nawaz Sharif, who return to Pakistan after eight years of exile abroad only a day before the last day of filing of nomination papers, made up for the lost time by carrying out a vigorous campaign which is likely to pay dividends for his party. He frontally attacked Musharraf and his policies, highlighted the rising cost of living, power outage and corruption and vowed to restore the independence of judiciary.

For the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) former Punjab chief minister Pervez Elahi led the party campaign emphasising the development work undertaken by its government in the centre and provinces. The PML-Q is also relying on the fact that it had fielded candidates who can win on the basis of their feudal and clan affiliations. All opposition parties, including the PPP and the PML-N, have said they are taking part in elections under protest despite serious reservations that Musharraf will manipulate results as he had done in 2002 referendum and general elections and subsequent local government elections in 2005.

Several important parties, including the All Parties Democratic Movements comprising Jamaat Islami, Tehrike Insaf, all most all nationalists in Balochistan and Sindh are boycotting the polls saying they cannot trust Musharraf to hold fair and free polls particularly in the absence of an independent judiciary which he dismantled on November 4. Influential religious group Sunni Therik has also announced its boycott.



Mush juggles paranoia and confidence on poll eve
Afzal Khan writes from Islamabad

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (retd) has predicted that his supporters in the Pakistan Muslim League and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) will win today’s elections.

“The PML-Q allied with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement will certainly have the majority,” Musharraf told Imran Khan’s ex-wife Jemima Khan, who interviewed him for London’s The Independent.

“Whether they’ll be able to form a government is a question,” he added.

He dismissed a series of opinion polls conducted by Western organisations which said the popularity of Musharraf and PML-Q had slumped to an all time low. “They are biased, conducted by local organisations that are against me,” he said adding: “They have been abusing me right from the beginning and you will never get good results from them.”

He, however, seemed increasingly paranoid. “The media has let me down ... The NGOs are against me. I don’t know why. I think I have been the strongest proponent of human rights ....” In fact, the only people who are not against him, according to him, are the Western leaders who, he says, are “absolutely supportive and express total solidarity”

When she asked about the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is still under house arrest, he denounced him as “the scum of the earth — a third-rate man — a corrupt man”.

And the lawyers' movement? “In hindsight,” he replies solemnly, “it was my personal error that I allowed them to go and express their views in the streets... We should have controlled them in the beginning before things got out of control.”

According to Jemima, Musharraf mentioned democracy a great deal. “He seems sincere. He is genuinely likeable. But it seems he just can’t help himself. You can take the General out of the army but not the army out of the General.

“As I leave he presents me with a clock inscribed “from the President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”. It seems an inauspicious gift from a man whose time may be up. He shakes my hand.

“It will be the saddest day for Pakistan if Benazir’s crooked widower is in power by Monday,” says Jemiama. As the President walks away, he looks back. “At least we part in agreement”.


Zardari warns against rigging

London, February 17
On the eve of parliamentary polls in Pakistan, PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari is 100 per cent confident of garnering a majority but warned President Pervez Musharraf-led government not to rig the election which will force him to launch massive street protests leading to the break-up of the nation.

“Up till now I’ve shown absolute patience. My wife (former Premier Benazir Bhutto) has been killed, yet I’ve calmed people down, stopped them protesting. I’ve called no strike. But I’m telling you, people are absolutely on the warpath. If the elections are rigged the situation will go out of my hands. We’ll have no choice but to take to the streets,” Zardari said in an interview to The Sunday Times published today.

“I feel her (Bhutto’s) spirit is with me and I won’t let her down. But I fear they did not kill Benazir just to let us win... We’ve played our part responsibly. We’ve taken part in the elections rather than boycotted. Now it’s up to them to give us a free run. People are angry, they are on the breadline, despite the $60 billion windfall Musharraf has enjoyed over the past eight years.

The paper noted that although opinion polls have a dubious record in Pakistan, all three surveys carried out last week showed support for Musharraf at an all-time low and the ruling party PML-Q heading for a crushing defeat.

The latest poll by the US-funded International Republican Institute predicted a landslide for the two main opposition parties.

Half of those polled planned to vote for Bhutto’s PPP and 22 per cent backed former premier Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, while only 14 per cent favoured PML-Q.

The report said a Zardari-Sharif alliance is Musharraf’s worst nightmare, as together they could get the two-thirds majority needed to oust him as President. — PTI



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