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Bhutto's death clouds Pakistan campaign

  • Story Highlights
  • Benazir Bhutto's party to restart campaigning after period in mourning
  • Pakistan People's Party contesting February 18 vote
  • Bhutto assassinated in December 2007
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Assassinated Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's party will restart its campaign this week to unseat President Pervez Musharraf's ruling party from parliament following the end of its self-imposed mourning period.

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Bhutto greets her supporters at the rally that was hit by a suicide attack.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party stopped campaigning for a 40-day period after her December 27 assassination. Other opposition parties recently restarted their campaigns after a temporary suspension in observation of the holy month of Muharram, which ended last week.

Security will be tight at upcoming political rallies and it is unclear if Pakistanis will stay away in large numbers, fearing a repeat of the attack that left Bhutto and 28 others dead after a PPP rally in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.

Opposition parties are hoping to seize on Musharraf's rising unpopularity to wrest control of the parliament. But, despite repeated promises by the president, many Pakistanis told CNN they do not believe the February 18 vote will be free or fair.

"I call them 100 percent fraud elections," one man said.

Elections in Pakistan have always taken place amid allegations of fraud, but analysts say this time the fears of slanted elections carry more weight because the upcoming vote follows a particularly tumultuous year.

"2007 was decisively anti-democracy," analyst Ahmed Bilal Mehboob said. "It really shattered the hopes."

Pakistan's current political turmoil began in March when Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, accusing him of misusing his powers. The move triggered country-wide protests and accusations that the Pakistani leader was trying to influence the Supreme Court's ruling on whether he could run for another five-year term under Pakistan's constitution.

Since then, Chaudhry has become symbolic of the criticism against Musharraf and what his opponents say is his attempt to remain in power.

Although he was later reinstated, Chaudhry and other Supreme Court justices were sacked again hours after Musharraf imposed a state of emergency on November 3, which suspended the country's constitution and put the parliamentary elections on hold.

Pakistan's independent television channels were temporarily taken off air and protests erupted across the country. Many opposition members were arrested

"One step after another, steps were taken by the government which were counter-productive for any meaningful transition to real democracy," Mehboob said.

Musharraf insisted the emergency was necessary to confront Islamic extremism. But his opponents said he was simply imposing martial law to maintain his grip on power.

Less than a month later, Musharraf did step down as army chief, but only after transferring many powers -- including the ability to lift the emergency order -- to the presidency and handpicking his successor to lead Pakistan's military, which controls its nuclear arsenal.

Under increased pressure, Musharraf lifted the emergency order in mid-December and set elections for January.

Everything was set into a tailspin weeks later when Bhutto was assassinated. Her killing triggered riots and the government postponed the election until February.

Pakistan's government blamed Islamic extremists, directed by Taliban commander Baitullah Masood, for Bhutto's assassination. But her Pakistan People's Party accused the government of having a role in her death, and said its inability to protect her is symbolic of Pakistan's crisis.

"We are clamoring for a peaceful election but we are not getting anything in return which would give us confidence," PPP Senator Farooq Maik said.

The government-appointed Election Commission points out that 2,000 international monitors plus tens of thousands of Pakistani observers will watch the electoral process.

"Every (ballot) paper will be counted in the presence of observers, the election agents, the polling agents, before the media," Secretary of the Election Commission Kanwar Muhammad Dilshad said.

"(There will be) no tampering because everything will be done before all the representatives of political parties, polling agents, media and presence of civil society."

But several parties are boycotting the vote and Pakistan's chief international ally maintains that some irregularities are inevitable.

"We don't necessarily accept a certain level of fraud but if history is any guide and current reports are any guide, we should expect some," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, America's top diplomat for South Asia.

In a recent poll, just 15 percent of Pakistanis believed the election will be free and fair.

"Mr. Musharraf cannot afford to hold free and fair elections because if he does that, he loses very badly," said former Pakistani premier and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.

"His 'king's party' loses very badly and he can't afford to lose the election."

Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party will participate in the election, despite its concerns about vote rigging.

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But Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party said "the system is fair."

"You know the man who is going to lose -- he always says the election is going to be rigged," Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Thomas Evans and Jennifer Eccleston in Islamabad contributed to this report

All About PakistanPervez MusharrafNawaz SharifBenazir Bhutto

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