Pakistan Prepares for Parliamentary Elections Pakistan holds parliamentary elections Monday. The outcome could produce a parliament hostile to President Pervez Musharraf, who has seen his popularity plummet over the past year.
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Pakistan Prepares for Parliamentary Elections

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Pakistan Prepares for Parliamentary Elections

Pakistan Prepares for Parliamentary Elections

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It's only a matter of hours before Election Day begins in Pakistan. Tomorrow morning, Pakistan local time, millions of people will troop to the polling booths to choose a new national parliament and provincial assemblies. There are widespread fears of violence. Yesterday at least 39 people were killed by a suicide bomber in an election-related attack in the tribal border area.

As NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves reports, the election's also a crucial moment in Pakistan history.

PHILIP REEVES: Less than two months have elapsed since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto shook Pakistan to its core.

(Soundbite of man yelling)

REEVES: Her death still hangs in the air here. Supporters flourishing her party flag race through the city of Lahore. Her picture's everywhere. Her Pakistan People's Party is expected to win the most votes in tomorrow's election. Newspaper editor Talat Aslam(ph) predicts a big sympathy vote.

Mr. TALAT ASLAM (Newspaper Editor): It's a huge emotional force that has been built up over the last 40 days or so since Benazir died.

REEVES: The stakes are high. The election could determine whether power really is shifting in Pakistan. The army's already edging its way out of politics, its reputation badly tarnished by a year of political crises and embarrassments, including six weeks of emergency rule.

Unidentified Man: The (unintelligible) group has amassed an unprecedented range of data and research leading up to the elections.

REEVES: Pakistan's media is in overdrive. One question dominates the debate: is the stage now set for another change, a real transfer of power away from President Musharraf towards parliament and a new prime minister?

Some of Musharraf's opponents hope for more. They hope the opposition parties will secure such an overwhelming victory that Musharraf will see this as a signal it's time for him to go. Others believe that though Musharraf recently stood down as army chief, he has no real interest in giving up any more power. No one disputes, though, that this is a perilous moment in Pakistan's 60-year history.

Professor RASUL BAKHSH RAIS (Lahore University): We really don't know what is going to happen within next 48 hours in this country.

REEVES: Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University, says the most immediate worry is that the vote will be rigged. The aim will be to give a bigger share to the party that supports Musharraf, the so-called King's Party. The idea will be to stop Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and its allies from forming a coalition with two-thirds of more of the seats in parliament.

A two-thirds majority would allow parliament to challenge Musharraf's key powers. The upper house, the senate, which is pro-Musharraf, might block such moves. But the senate might also see the way the wind's blowing and abandon the president.

Rais says vote tampering by the Musharraf government would be very dangerous.

Prof. RAIS: If he does that, there is going to be disorder and chaos in this country and we don't know what will be the consequences of that disorder.

President PERVEZ MUSHARRAF (Pakistan): Do not test the resolve of the government. Zero tolerance.

REEVES: Musharraf says the government's prepared to crack down hard on any troublemakers. Scores of people have already died in election-related attacks. Eighty thousand troops have been deployed around the country to try to keep order. Musharraf also says the elections will be free and fair and monitored.

His critics, including political commentator Cameron Sheffy(ph), are highly skeptical.

Mr. CAMERON SHEFFY (Political Commentator): How many monitors are there? I mean, even if there were 10,000 monitors, you've got 70,000 polling stations, you know? No, this is nonsense.

REEVES: The place to watch tomorrow is Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province. It has more than half the seats in parliament.

Mr. ASIF ALI ZARDARI: The message to the people of Pakistan is stay united...

REEVES: And this is the person to watch. Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's controversial and charismatic husband. He's the de facto leader of her party and will likely play a crucial role in deciding how the government's formed. Also, keep an eye on the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. His party's expected to do well too. There's a chance Sharif will enter a coalition with the Pakistan People's Party. Although those negotiations may well be difficult.

But no one really knows what will happen next. The world's watching nervously, and Pakistan is tense and frightened. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Lahore.

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