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Pakistanis to Vote in Critical Elections

Pakistanis go to the polls on Monday to elect a new parliament in a vote that could determine President Pervez Musharraf's political future. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party has expressed confidence it will win enough votes to maintain control of parliament. But public opinion surveys show wide support for the opposition.

Pervez Musharraf's presidency is not being contested in the elections. But if the parties that back him lose control of the parliament, rival political parties could lead a drive to impeach him.

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Musharraf has pledged that the elections will be free and fair, and dismissed accusations that he is planning to rig the vote to maintain his grip on power. "Despite all rumors, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent only and peaceful only," promised Musharraf.

Mr. Musharraf has also warned that no disruption or violence will be allowed, including protests after the elections.

Recent public opinion polls show support for Mr. Musharraf's party is at an all-time low. According to the surveys, many Pakistanis will vote for the Pakistan People's Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto or the Pakistan Muslim League, led by another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Author Shuja Nawaz, a longtime observer of the Pakistani scene, says it is likely that these two parties will cooperate after the elections: "There probably will be a coalition of sorts. As to who the partners are, it is hard to determine. But most probably [it will be] a convenience coalition between the [Pakistan] People's Party and the PMLN [, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)]," says Nawaz.

The Military's Role

The elections follow General Musharraf's retirement late last year from the Army to become a civilian president. He appointed General Ashfaq Kiyani as the new Army chief. And experts say his relations with any new government will be a key factor in bringing stability to Pakistan.

In recent days, General Kiyani has instructed army officers to be politically neutral and not to associate with politicians. This effort to remove the military from politics is much needed, says Pakistani political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The changes have to be brought institutionally," argues Siddiqa. "It is a million-dollar question: How does one inculcate that sense in the Pakistani military -- that come what may, it need not get involved in politics and that it needs to keep itself away from the economy, from getting too engaged in the society and [go] back to its professional work?"

Author Shuja Nawaz says the fact that General Kiyani appears to be distancing himself from politics and the elections indicates that the Army will accept whatever government emerges. Nawaz discounts accusations that the Army will collaborate with the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party. "Again, because of the fact that the Army is not directly involved in the elections and Kiyani has said that he will not allow the army officers to deal with politicians, we have to believe what he says," according to Nawaz.

But Ayesha Siddiqa warns that General Kiyani and the Army cannot be neutral for very long. "It is not that he has extracted himself completely out of politics. It is just for protecting or guarding the military or improving the military's image," says Siddiqa. "I mean, he cannot fundamentally do anything -- even intervene in politics -- if the [Army's] image does not improve. So in the short- to medium-term, he has to play this game."

Siddiqa points out that President Musharraf's recent retirement from the military to become a civilian President has added to the Army's rethinking of its role in Pakistani society. "What has also happened in the past seven [or] eight years is that the military has begun to see itself as a part of the progressive middle class, which knows how to bring economic progress, which believes in economic progress, which believes in strengthening, within quotes, 'democracy' in the country and making new institutions, new systems," says Siddiqa.

A major issue that will face any new government in Pakistan will be the fight against terrorists in the country's tribal areas, where extremist activity has been on the rise.

Some analysts say that any new anti-terrorist campaign will not be in response to U.S. calls to step up the fight. Instead, says Shuja Nawaz, Pakistan's war on terror will likely be in the new government's own interests. "They will realize how difficult it is to govern when large areas of your borderlands and now increasingly the settled areas of the North-West Frontier Province are being taken over by groups that are challenging the writ of the government,"says Nawaz. "And so if they are continuously going to be challenged, they will have to resolve these issues."

Although Pakistan's opposition parties have been united on the issue of fighting terrorism, the two main parties have not agreed on the question of restoring the judiciary, which was replaced by President Musharraf with pro-government judges.

While opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has based his campaign on restoring the ousted judges, the Pakistan People's Party has been non-committal. Author Shuja Nawaz says the outcome likely will depend on the Army. "As far as the Army's acceptance, I think the Army, if it sees the role of the judiciary as being a key stabilizing factor, then I am sure the Army would accept it," predicts Nawaz. "If it sees the judiciary getting into areas that directly threaten the military's internal corporate interests, I am sure it will find a way to counter it. That has been the history and is the reality of Pakistan today."

Most analysts expect voter turnout to be relatively high unless there is violence or people feel intimidated by the large presence of soldiers on the streets who are deployed there to prevent violence.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.