Pakistan's national elections are due to be held Monday. The poll is seen as a test of the country's commitment to democracy. But many Pakistanis are expressing pessimism that the political exercise will bring about real change in the country. Raymond Thibodeaux reports from Rawalpindi.
At this crowded street-side tea shop in Rawalpindi, a garrison town just south of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, the mood is as gloomy and foreboding as the drizzly skies. With national elections just a day away, the few smiles on display are from candidates on the colorful campaign banners draped across the storefronts, balconies and telephone poles.
Jamil Baig, 29, a clothing merchant, says many people here are not exactly eager to go the polls. Like many Pakistanis, he believes that the elections are rigged in favor of the ruling party, led by President Pervez Musharraf. This, despite Musharraf's low popularity rating in recent surveys.
"These local governments were imposed by Musharraf," he said. "They are already interfering in the elections. They have already done a lot of pre-poll rigging. So, nobody will accept these elections. They will not be free and fair elections."
In polls that some Western countries see as a test of Pakistan's commitment to democracy, many candidates have not even bothered to hold public rallies, a staple of political campaigns in Pakistan. Other candidates are boycotting the elections outright.
Such is the pall cast over much of Pakistan in the leadup to the elections. Two recent suicide bombings have left 27 people dead and at least 70 others injured. The bomb attacks came just weeks after one of the country's most promising opposition candidates, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated here while on the campaign trail.
There are concerns that the rise in political violence could keep voters from the polls. Sheikh Sohail, 33, a pharmacist, says Bhutto's death leaves no one to vote for.
"We don't have any leadership," he said. "I haven't seen out of these politicians, not a single man who could be our leader."
There are three main parties vying to lead Pakistan. For many of the country's illiterate voters, the parties are identified by their symbols. There's the bicycle for the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, led by General Musharraf. There's the arrow for the Pakistan People's Party, led by Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari. And there is the tiger for a split off of the ruling party, led by Nawaz Sharif, a two-time prime minister who was deposed by Musharraf in 1999.
The pre-election violence has ratcheted up tension in this nuclear-armed Islamic nation of 165 million people. It also has highlighted a sense of growing insecurity in a country seen as a key partner in the U.S.-led war against al-Qaida terrorists and their allied Taliban fighters, who appear to be gaining a wider foothold in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan.
But for many Pakistanis, the top election issues are closer to home. The skyrocketing cost of food and fuel is mainly what is on the minds of most Pakistanis. No government will last long unless they can control inflation. That is according to Irfan Khan, who helps manage a family pet store that mainly sells parakeets, which constantly chatter in the background.
"The most important issue is inflation, and after that the petrol crisis," he said. "Whichever government will come they will not survive and there will be a breakup after six months or one year."
A team of observers from the United States and the European Union is in Pakistan to help independent Pakistani civic groups monitor polling stations in the country's 272 voting districts.
Still, many Pakistanis worry that post-election clashes between the government and angry opposition supporters are almost inevitable.