Pakistanis vote in general elections Monday (Feb. 18) amid accusations of pre-poll rigging and concern about security situation in the wake of rise in suicide attacks. Hundreds of international and local observes are in place to ensure fair and free elections. However, if history has any guidance, manipulation or no manipulation, the results are very much predictable at least in the rural areas where most of the voters live.
The International Republican Institute (IRI) projects a landslide victory for two main opposition parties – Pakistan Peoples Party of the assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto and Muslim League faction of the former Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif. But the election results may defy the IRI projections. Why? Because the results are pretty much pre-determined because of the inbuilt factors of Pakistan’s prevalent social and political system.
The reality is that political parties in Pakistan have no grass roots because long direct or indirect military rule since 1958 has always suppressed all political activities and made it sure that no political party takes root among the masses. That is why we don’t see any political party which has support of masses in all the four province of the country. The long suppression of political activity has given strength to nationalist parties in the three smaller provinces – Balochistan, North West Frontier Province and Sindh – which see the army as a symbol of the domination of Punjab which is the largest populated province. (Baluchistan is the largest province of Pakistan in landmass.)
Political parties are organized less around policies than people, often from feudal families who have held sway for generations. In Punjab, feudal landowners are also the political elite holding tenant-voters firmly in their grip. For many villagers in Punjab, where half of Pakistan’s 272 parliamentary seats will be contested, casting a vote has more to do with feudal allegiance than expressing a political opinion.
This is also true for the Pakistan Peoples Party of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. A minority party in the Punjab, it too relies on feudalism to pull in the votes. However, in this election it is likely to fetch sympathy vote for Benazir’s murder.
Punjab's electoral importance stems from its size and character. With nearly 100 million people, it contains 55 percent of the Pakistani populace. And while voting patterns in the other three provinces are predictable, Punjab is prone to subtle shifts, which, given its population, can dramatically shift the balance of power in Pakistan's National Assembly.
Despite the fact that national polls suggest the two main opposition parties, the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) are set for a landslide victory, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) which was established to support President Musharraf's regime, may hold enough feudal seats in the Punjab to prevent an outright opposition majority and force a coalition.
Ijaz Gilani, president of Gallup Pakistan, has cautioned that parliamentary elections sometimes defy opinion polls, since there are 272 individual contests in Punjab with different candidates and complexities. For that reason, the PML-Q could do well in constituencies where it has fielded candidates who are influential or can rely on caste ties for votes.
More than 80 million registered voters are expected to exercise their right to vote. Political observers suggest that fears of violence could drive a very low turnout. But for many who do vote, the election appears to have become an anti-Musharraf referendum, with a wide majority of voters holding him responsible for the current problem of food shortage and electricity black outs.
For many Monday's vote is a way to vent their frustration at Musharraf's capitulation to US interests. His military operations in the tribal areas – done at America's bidding – have only inflamed the problem. Some 65 percent of Pakistanis agree that terrorists operating in Pakistan are a serious problem, according to a recent survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI). But 89 percent say that Pakistan should not cooperate with the United States in its war on terror.
Amid fear of suicide bomb attacks, police and rangers backed up by the Army will maintain law and order during and after the crucial vote. Around 95 battalions of Army have been deployed in sensitive and very sensitive areas in the four provinces to assist maintenance of law and order. A total of 81,000 personnel of civil armed forces and Army have been deployed through out the country.