Pakistan to vote tomorrow, stakes high for Musharraf

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Islamabad, Feb 17 (UNI) Blitzed by a wave of suicide bombings, rigging allegations and the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Pakistanis will vote tomorrow amid unprecedented security arrangements in an election which will decide the fate of President Pervez Musharraf, who faces impeachment if the Opposition emerged the winner.

The elections originally scheduled for January 8 were deferred till February 18 in the wake of assassination of Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto on November 27.

A wave of suicide bombings across the country has taken the wind out of poll campaign with only major political parties like the PPP and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N organising big rallies, that too rarely.

Though President Musharraf has time and again asserted that the polls would be conducted in a fair manner, the people of Pakistan as well as the international community remain sceptical that the establishment would do every thing to ensure that the results come out in its favour.

An audio tape was released by Human Rights Watch on Friday, in which Attorney General Malik Mohammad Qayyum was claimed to have been telling someone over the phone that the polls would be ''massively rigged''.

Apart from deteriorating law and order situation, rising inflation and power crisis, the biggest issue in these elections is the 64-year-old former General himself even though it is not a presidential election.

Doubts over the constitutionality of the former military ruler's election to the top post for a second term in October last year still remain and if his detractors emerge victorious in the polls, there was every possibility that the former commando might be impeached by Parliament.

Gen (retd) Musharraf invoked emergency in November and sacked all the judges who would have ruled his re-election unconstitutional.

One of the longest serving military chiefs of Pakistan, Gen Musharraf stepped down the same month and took oath as a civilian president after appointing long time confidante Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.

An expected low turnout and possible rigging could help Gen Musharraf ride out the storm. But rigging could also trigger protests that might hasten his end.

This also brings into the focus the probable post-poll equations.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was overthrown by Gen Musharraf, has already rejected any possibility of working with the President, who has so far only pliant Prime Ministers to deal with.

Mr Sharif returned to the country after spending eight years in exile and now in the absence of Benazir Bhutto is the most prominent leader on the political landscape.

The PPP, under the leadership of slain Benazir Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari, has indicated that it was not averse to forming a national government. The party is expected to get a lot of sympathy votes in the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in a gun and bomb attack and most likely to emerge as the single largest party.

Gen Musharraf, on the other hand, saw his popularity nosedive in the recent months with many international polls predicting a sharp decline in the support for the President.

Local support for the religious fundamentalist parties has also fallen as they are believed to be hand in glove with the insurgents and terrorist organisations behind a renewed wave of terror attacks and suicide bombings in the country. More than 1000 security personnel and civilians have been killed in these attacks.

Besides, the MMA, which rules the key NWFP province, split last year on differences over boycotting elections. One faction led by the fundamentalist Jamaat Islami is boycotting the polls, leaving Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam, the other main Muslim party. The other opposition parties gathered under the umbrella of All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) remained divided over the question of poll boycott.

The coalition failed to woo Benazir Bhutto's PPP and with Nawaz Sharif also opting out, it took the wind out of their sail.

However, remaining leaders of the group, including cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Qazi Hussain Ahmed were appealing to people not to participate in the elections.

Gen Musharraf, considered a key ally in the war on terror by the West, made it clear last week that he would not allow any opposition protest after the polls and they would have to accept the result, whatever it may be.

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