A week from Monday, Pakistanis will go to the polls to elect their federal parliament, in one of the more consequential elections of the past two decades. The campaign season started out Saturday with an unfortunate bombing at a rally in Charsadda near Peshawar that killed 27 and wounded 40. The Awami National Party, a secular, left of center faction of the Pushtun ethnic group, had staged the rally. The small party, which opposes President Musharraf, did not do well enough in the 2002 elections to gain a seat.
Meanwhile, in the southern city of Thatta, Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Zardari addressed a crowd said to be 100,000 strong (i.e. truly enormous), pledging state’s rights and a new compact between the federal government and the provinces if the Pakistan People’s Party came to power. In Sindh Province, which speaks a distinctive language and is extremely poverty-stricken, the PPP functions as a regional party standing for Sindhi rights. Such large rallies have been unusual this campaign season, given the threat of violence from suicide bombers representing Muslim radicals or possibly rogue elements in the government itself (as Zardari heavily implied).
The election pits forces favorable to President Pervez Musharraf, who became a civilian last fall, against those who consider him still to be a military dictator. He is supported by the Pakistan Muslim League (Qa’id-i A`zam) or PMLQ. He is opposed by the Pakistan People’s Party of slain leader Benazir Bhutto and by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PMLN, loyal to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif (who is banned from standing for a seat himself because of corruption charges).
If the PPP wins, or can form a coalition with another opposition party such as the PMLN, this development could severely weaken Pervez Musharraf or even force him from office.
Musharraf has dismissed calls for him to step down from retired military officers, and is said to be coercing the press into prohibiting criticism of him in the lead-up to the elections.
Meanwhile, in Islamabad “About 1,500 lawyers tried to march Saturday to Chaudhry’s barricaded home to protest his continued detention. When lawyers tried to breach the barbed-wire barricade, hundreds of riot police responded with tear gas, water cannon and a baton charge. Several lawyers were roughed up, but there were no reports of serious injury. Earlier Saturday, Pakistan’s Bar Council announced the lawyers would boycott courts nationwide until the elections to pressure the government to restore Chaudhry and other senior judges.”
McClatchy says that Pakistan is now the “central front” in the American War on Terror. Not if you measure it by resources or effort, it isn’t. It is a minor item in the Pentagon budget. Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay note that the way Pakistan remains menaced by the Pakistani Taliban and by remnants of al-Qaeda show that Bush was mistaken to run off to Iraq before finishing the job.
Admiral Mike Mullen, on a visit to Pakistan, admitted that the threat level from the Pakistani Taliban has increased, but said that it does not threaten the Pakistani state or control of the country’s nuclear weapons. He also quite sensibly demurred from noises made by presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle that the US might go in after al-Qaeda unilaterally: “I give no credence to the notion that the United States could in any way, shape or form invade or attack Pakistan . . .”
The good news is that Pakistanis will be able to go to Indian films in the cinema for the first time since 1965. It isn’t actually a big thing, since Lahore is close enough to India to get Amritsar tv and in any case a lot of middle class families have cable or satellite, including pan-South Asian channels such as Zeetv, which show the Bollywood films. In fact, film going in Pakistan is largely an activity for young men, and families prefer to watch a DVD at home. There are only a couple of hundred of cinemas left in Pakistan, victims of the boycott of Indian films and of Muslim fundamentalism.
Is Mulla Omar in the Pakistani city of Quetta and Usama Bin Laden in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas nearby?. Which Washington official is leaking this charge and why? If the charge is true, why haven’t they been found and arrested? Curioser and curioser.