In foreign parts

There is only one other female besides me at a rally for Islamic fundamentalists and she is a five-year-old Pakistani, in candy floss pink. In a shrill voice, like a tape recorder being fast-forwarded, Sumbal denounces the Americans from centre stage.

"First they kill thousands of our Afghani brothers and sisters," she says, her black eyes flashing. "Next, they want to control us here in Pakistan."

The crowd of 400 bearded men erupts in applause and her teacher beams. Sumbal is the best student at the Muhammed Bin Qasami Academy and she has not stumbled over a single word of her memorised speech.

The noon sun strikes our heads like a blade in this remote goat pasture, near the Indus river, surrounded by flinty hills. Pakistan has an election on Thursday, and campaigning for what looks certain to be a hung parliament has been decidedly muted.

More speeches and prayers drone on, until the local parliamentary candidate, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, approaches the podium. With his Father Christmas beard and gentle demeanour, he appears more a sage than a firebrand.

Illiterate voters can recognise Mr Ahmed's new party by its symbol, the book. Formerly the voice of the puritanical Jamaat-e-Islami, Mr Ahmed now speaks for half a dozen fringe groups from the religious right, which merged last summer in an effort to survive as a political force.

Their alliance, called the MMA, an Urdu acronym for United Council of Action, comprises Taliban supporters and other Muslim hardliners, but it has no plans to confront directly General Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistani President, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has reined in religious militants at Washington's request.But religious extremists may be on the rise.

MMA candidates are unlikely to win a majority outside the North-west Frontier Province, but their ballot papers will be a measure of the popular discontent with General Musharraf's perceived pandering to the West. The fundamentalists continue to be a thorn in his side.

Both of Pakistan's mainstream political parties lack the considerable clout they once wielded and are floundering without charismatic leaders. Benazir Bhutto's PPP (Pakistan People's Party) has fragmented into four factions, and the Muslim League that twice voted in the deposed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has splintered into eight contentious groups. This allows Islamic fundamentalists a chance to gain seats, especially in the tradition-bound region bordering Afghanistan.

"Pakistan has always been a pimp for Western policy," grumbles a greybeard ahead of me in the food queue. Savoury saffron pilau is spread on a tarp like a vast yellow carpet, and this quickly becomes the crowd's focal point. But there's only time for a mouthful before the candidate's motorcade heads for the Grand Trunk Road. I catch up with Qazi Hussain Ahmed at party headquarters in Nowshera, a tidy garrison town where his anti-American followers quench their thirst with Coca-Cola.

"The MMA has the only nationally organised campaign and people have been very receptive," Mr Ahmed tells me. "The old leaders are aloof and in the grip of the feudals, and the present ruler of Pakistan is so ambitious he has no courage." For political expediency, rival sects have tried to set aside their religious bickering to give the MMA some cohesion. "We have been flexible," he says. "If our principles are respected, we can co-operate with anyone in Pakistan."

Courting new voters between 18 and 21 is a big priority, and the MMA manifesto promotes self-determination for Kashmir and building up the economy as prominently as its predictable condemnation of servility to the West. General Musharraf's election reforms are meant to bolster a democracy where kleptocracy once was institutionalised, but they will, in effect, limit who may stand for office.

By requiring a candidate to hold a university degree, only the elite 2 per cent of the population could pursue a political career, and very few women. "I can assure you there will be no leadership of loot and plunder," General Musharraf has promised the voters. "Better leadership will emerge. They may belong to the same [feudal] families, but if the next generation is educated and has better vision, they will run the country better."

By the time Sumbal, the prodigy in pink at the MMA rally, can speak her own mind, Pakistan may be ready to move beyond its feudal reflexes to become a recognisable democracy. Now, it marches to a military beat.