Voters in Pakistan go to the polls Monday in one of the most crucial elections in the South Asian nation's 60-year history. The elections to four provincial assemblies and the lower house of Parliament come amid a wave of violence and uncertainty following the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel previews the election in this report from Rawalpindi.
Everywhere you turn in the famous Raja Bazaar market in Rawalpindi there are signs of the upcoming elections. Giant posters are everywhere. Small groups representing different political parties hand out literature to the swarms of shoppers. Parades of banner waving activists clog the already overcrowded streets.
While the campaigning is colorful, the reaction from most Pakistanis has been remarkably subdued.
The assassination here in Rawalpindi of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last December, and a wave of violence and suicide bombings that followed, appear to have poisoned the political atmosphere.
The death of the former prime minister has robbed the opposition of its most popular leader and cast a pall over the electoral process.
The director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, says many people are frightened by the violence and may be too scared to vote.
"Following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto a feeling, a factor of fear has come into the politics and electioneering in the country," he said. "So in general, a voter is very reluctant to be a part of the electioneering and therefore the chances are that relatively less number of voters will be coming out to vote on the day of election."
Mehboob's organization has been monitoring the run up to the election for the last 14 months, a period he says that has been very unfair to the opposition.
He says the caretaker government and the state-run media are heavily biased in favor of Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the main political party backing President Pervez Musharraf.
Independent institutions, including television news channels, the judiciary and the legal establishment are still suffering from the impact of Mr. Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule in November that lasted six weeks.
President Musharraf, however, has repeatedly promised the elections will be free and fair.
He says the world's attention is on Pakistan, and has indicated there is too much at stake to rig the elections.
"The world is watching us. The national prestige is at stake," he said. "Peace and harmony is at stake and our future is at stake."
Recent polls indicate Mr. Musharraf's popularity is at an all-time low, and opposition parties like Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League faction led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are expected to do well on election day.
Rifaat Hussain, a professor at Qaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, says if parties backing Mr. Musharraf do well, most Pakistanis will believe the results are rigged.
"Precisely because his popularity has dipped so low and the two mainstream political parties are expected to win the forthcoming parliamentary elections, there is a very strong belief that just to make sure of his own survival he will encourage the PML-Q, the king's party, to actually engage in some kind of rigging so the two mainstream political parties will not be able to come together and form a government which would be so opposed to his own rule," he said.
Mr. Musharraf's presidency is not being contested in this election, but if opposition parties win a two-thirds majority in parliament, they would have enough votes to impeach him.
Election observer Ahmed Bilal Mehboob expects violence to erupt if people believe the election results are manipulated.
"So we fear that if there is a perception and if there is a reality of some wrongdoing on the day of the election, the reaction is going to be very violent," he said. "It is something which may destabilize the political system of Pakistan."
Tens of thousands of troops have been deployed across Pakistan to improve security before the elections.
They will be in place if riots breakout after the results are announced.
Jawed Iqbal Cheema is the spokesman for Pakistan's Interior Ministry.
"All these arrangements have been made to insure that people cast their vote without any fear in an environment of peace and order," he said. "Nobody will be allowed to disrupt the polling process or create any law and order situation. Anyone trying to hinder the process shall be dealt with very sternly."
While terrorism tops the concerns of many Pakistanis, more basic worries like rising prices, a shortage of basic goods and power outages that last for hours confront all but the very wealthy here.
Tanvir Hussain, a small businessman from the village of Noorpur Shahn, says most Pakistanis are struggling.
"The condition of the common person is so miserable," he said. "Everything is so expensive and commodities which the people use, their price has become double and it is so difficult for a person to survive in the present circumstances."
The question after the election is whether Pakistan will unite behind the new parliament or disintegrate into chaos.
Retired Major General Jamshed Ayaz Khan, the president of the independent Institute for Regional Studies, says the country must come together.
"Like with India and Pakistan, we have no choice, but to have peace. War we have tried for 60 years," he said. "So similarly now, this being the mother of all elections, the stability of the country being at stake, the outside powers watching you with very, very hawkish eyes, everybody looking at you, we have to insure that we put our act together and there is unity."
Monday's vote is seen as key to Pakistan's transition to democracy after eight years of military rule under President Musharraf.
Political analysts will be closely watching the returns here in Punjab, Pakistan's largest province.
Punjab accounts for more than half of the National Assembly seats and is considered the major battleground in Monday's election.