Pakistan's Opposition Holds Its Breath
By Aryn Baker/Islamabad, TIME, Monday, Feb. 18, 2008
Counting has begun in Pakistan after a day of voting in general elections which many hope will pull the country out of violence but which could also fuel more chaos. Polls closed at 5 p.m. local time and official results are not expected to be tallied until Wednesday.
However, a few unofficial reports have begun to trickle in. And in a small number of districts, things appear to be going well for both the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). In some districts where the PPP appears to have won, party workers are throwing impromptu celebrations; Pakistani TV has shown people dancing in the streets and tossing confetti. And Sharif's party appears to be doing well in all urban areas, a welcome surprise for the former Prime Minister. One incumbent belonging to President Pervez Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-Qaid (PML-Q), the winner of every election for the past 20 years, has apparently been routed by Nawaz Sharif's candidate. "I think the initial results seem to be quite favorable," Sharif told TIME over the phone. "The trend is good." Fears of vote-rigging, however, are dampening the initial excitement. "All the TV stations are giving the same results. That might be very difficult for the government to change, but Mr. Mushararraf is capable of doing anything," says Sharif. "He is a very ruthless man."
The suicide bombings that many feared failed to materialize but other incidents of violence left at least eight people dead according to Pakistani television news stations, with six of those in Punjab province; more than 80 people were reported injured throughout the country. Widespread concern of fresh attacks by the militant Islamists who have unleashed a wave of terror over the past year seems to have kept many Pakistanis at home. In Northwest Frontier Province, which borders the lawless tribal areas where the militants base themselves, turnout was just 20% according to election officials. Voting was higher in other parts of the country, but still below expectations. Still, Sakina Bibi, 57, was undisturbed by the threat of violence as she waited patiently in line at a women's polling station in Rawalpindi, not far from the capital Islamabad. "I am not worried," she said. "It is up to God. If I am meant to die, I will die here."
At the men's polling station just a few blocks away, fears for security were trumped by concerns about vote rigging. The station opened an hour and a half late, causing many voters to give up in disgust before they had a chance to cast their ballots. "The time of voting is from 8 A.M. to five," said Jalil Paracha, 55, an electronics shop owner standing outside. "They should give us more time to vote at the end of the day, but they won't. The more time allowed would go against the government." Paracha said that rigging was a foregone conclusion, and warned of violence if Musharraf's party won. "Naturally, if you go against the people's will, the people will react."
While accusations of organized election fraud have been widespread, the sheer mayhem in the polling stations beggars belief that any one candidate could swing the votes in his or her favor. It is more likely, say analysts, that rigging will take place at the count, or in stations where voters are unable to visit due to security fears. The government insisted today, however, that voting was completely fair, with only minor disturbances.
While Musharraf is not running in this election — he was controversially re-elected president by the National Assembly in October — his fate is still very much reflected in the fate of his PML-Q, a faction that split from Nawaz Sharif's PML-N after Musharraf, then a general, overthrew the then Prime Minister in a 1999 coup. In the unlikely event that the president's party dominates the polling, Musharraf will then have to contend with millions of Pakistanis crying foul. If the opposition parties, lead by Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's husband, gain enough votes, they could call for Musharraf's impeachment.