Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, on Thursday promised the “mother of all elections” when the troubled south Asian country goes to the polls on Monday, as he rejected accusations of pre-poll rigging and warned opposition parties against the temptation of street protests.
“Politicians should not be under any illusion that they can bring people to the streets after the elections. Nothing of the sort will be allowed,” Mr Musharraf told a conference of government officials in Islamabad. “In this situation of extremism and terrorism, no agitation, anarchy or chaos can be acceptable.”
Campaigning for the election, which was postponed by six weeks after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, on December 27, has been uncharacteristically subdued, with political parties wary of rallies that could expose their leaders and supporters to suicide attacks.
Mr Musharraf’s remarks came as the Pakistan People’s party held its first big rally in the Punjab since Bhutto was killed as she drove away from a meeting in the city of Rawalpindi. The province, the key electoral battleground, accounts for more than half the country’s 80m voters and parliamentary seats.
The political machine of the Bhutto family for the past 40 years, the PPP was all but wiped out in the Punjab in the 2002 elections. The party’s chances of returning to power next week depend on it making inroads into a province now tightly controlled by the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam).
Speaking in Punjabi to a crowd in Faisalabad from behind a bullet-proof glass shield, Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, emphasised the Sindh-based PPP’s credentials as a national party and praised the Punjabi guards who had died in the suicide attack that killed the former premier.
“I have come to the Punjab to save Pakistan,” said Mr Zardari, who has been named co-chairman of the PPP with their 19-year-old student son, Bilawal. “I challenge all oppressors because I know that the people are with me. The people of Punjab have never supported oppression against the other three smaller provinces.”
The party’s performance in the election will be the first test of its viability without a Bhutto at its helm. In the winner-takes-all politics of Pakistan, few are convinced Mr Zardari has what it takes to compete with some of the toughest operators in south Asian politics.
Barely 5,000 people turned out to hear him speak, a poor turnout that could spell trouble for the populist centre-left party if repeated on polling day. The government has made much in recent days of the threat to polling stations, thousands of which have been labelled as “sensitive” and “most sensitive”.
“In the cities the turnout will be low because of bomb scares,” said Asma Jahangir, a human rights activist and lawyer. “Voters are also worried because all the parties are armed to the teeth. The PML candidates, who have tasted power and do not want to give it up, are saying ‘We have to win, even by the bullet’.”
Analysts are unsure of the extent to which the Bhutto family party will benefit from a sympathy vote in the Punjab. Most expect the PPP to emerge as the single largest party nationally, ahead of the pro-Musharraf PML (Q) and former premier Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N), but to fall short of an absolute majority.
Mr Zardari warned last week that the PPP would go to any extent to protest against a rigged election.