Voters in Pakistan are set to go to the polls Monday in elections for the lower house of parliament and the four provincial assemblies. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the elections and their aftermath hold potential dangers for a nation that has been through a series of crises recently, including the murder of a popular opposition figure.
In the past year, Pakistan has been rattled by a power struggle between the judiciary and the president, the armed occupation of a mosque by Islamic militants in the heart of the capital, the imposition of emergency rule, a surge in suicide bombings, a growing insurgency in tribal lands, and the assassination of the country's best-known opposition figure.
Recent independent polls of Pakistani voters reflect wide dissatisfaction with President Pervez Musharraf, pessimism about their economic situation, insecurity about personal safety, and deep cynicism about the fairness of the elections.
One poll by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute has Mr. Musharraf's approval rating at only 15 percent.
Mr. Musharraf is not on the ballot, having been re-elected in November by a national assembly and four provincial assemblies packed with his supporters, but his party, the PMLQ., is. Its primary opponents are the Pakistan Peoples Party, the PPP, the party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and the PMLN, headed by Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister who was once Ms. Bhutto's chief political rival.
The International Republican Institute's Middle East and North Africa Programs deputy director, Scott Mastic, says the assassination of Ms. Bhutto on Dec. 27 has had a clear effect on voters.
"You could say there is even a sort of groundswell of public sympathy, I would say, in the aftermath of the assassination, and that is translated into support for the PPP," said Scott Mastic. "On the whole, though, support for opposition parties, including PMLN. and PPP, is just much higher right now than support for the governing coalition of parties."
The opposition has accused pro-Musharraf forces of trying to manipulate the election's outcome. And, according to the IRI poll, 79 percent of surveyed voters believe the elections will have been rigged if Mr. Musharraf's party wins the most seats.
A longtime associate of Ms. Bhutto's who collaborated with her on her just-published final book, Mark Siegel, tells VOA such figures make massive vote fraud very difficult.
"The magnitude of the rigging will have to be so grand that the whole world would see that the election would be illegitimate," he said. "You know, Benazir always thought that Musharraf would try to rig. But under these conditions, she would probably say that he could not rig it enough to steal the election completely."
The polls have struck a raw nerve with Mr. Musharraf, who while reiterating his pledge of fair elections, sharply denounced the surveys by international organizations.
"Declaring winning parties, candidates, is malicious," he said. "It is malicious. It disturbs our peace. It cannot be done. It must not be done because you are giving unnecessary hopes, expectations, raising expectations of parties and people."
Most analysts say that if the vote is legitimate, the PPP will emerge with the largest number of seats and form a coalition that will put up longtime party stalwart Makhdoom Amin Fahim as the candidate for prime minister.
But a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Daniel Markey, points out the past bitter rivalry between the Bhutto and Sharif parties indicates the coalition could prove fractious and unsteady.
"In the event that you did get an opposition sweep, both the PPP and PMLN would feel an obligation to get rid of Musharraf," he said. "But both of them would also recognize in the back of their minds that as soon as they get rid of him, they will be at each others' throats. They have no love for each other. And they will be looking past that initial decision, past the Musharraf decision, to decide what is good for them as parties. And they may decide that keeping him around is more beneficial than removing him right away."
And, analysts add, the army will be waiting and watching from the sidelines, ready to intervene if it feels necessary, as it has for much of Pakistan's 60 years of existence.