Increase in violence threatens low turnout in Pakistan

Pakistan's opposition politicians have give the authorities a final warning not to rig the outcome of today's parliamentary election – threatening that their supporters will take to the streets in protest.

Against a backdrop of the constant threat of violence, more than 80,000 troops will join police in a massive security operation across the country. Yet despite such measures, experts say the threat of violence – a total of 47 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack on Saturday – combined with cynicism about the likely fairness of the result is expect to result in a low turnout.

"It is more than clear that a massive rigging plan is in place and has been implemented," said former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party.

Polls suggest the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the late Benazir Bhutto will ride a wave of sympathy to secure the largest number of parliamentary seats and form the government, in coalition with Mr Sharif or other parties. While President Pervez Musharraf is not a candidate, his deep unpopularity with the public is expected to result in a resounding defeat for the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) party, which he created.

Mr Sharif added: "We and the People's Party must win more than a simple majority. If we are deprived of that it means there has been massive rigging and we will both call for protests."

Ms Bhutto's widowed husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who has been leading the PPP campaign, continued to keep his political options open, indicating he was ready to work with a number of possible partners. "If God gives us a chance ... we will try to take all foes and friends together," he said during a speech in Islamabad. "I think we have reached the breaking point where if we don't band together, we will lose this great nation which we call Pakistan."

Disillusionment with politics and politicians is widespread in Pakistan and in the last election in 2002 turn-out was around 40 percent. At a bus station in Lahore, Zen, a student who was travelling to Faisalabad, summed up the views of many when he said: "I am not sure I will vote tomorrow. The politicians are all the same."

Crucial to everything is Mr Musharraf. Analysts have repeatedly warned that if he tries to either rig the election or hinder the emergence of an opposition government, widespread unrest could result. "If the elections are not free and fair, chaos would most likely follow. Musharraf is universally unpopular," said Husain Haqqani, an analyst at Boston University and author of Between Mosque and Military.

"He has united the diverse Pakistani nation in disliking him. But he might not go easily, creating instability that would benefit jihadi extremists."

The province of Punjab – long the wealthiest and most politically important part of Pakistan – is expected to be the key electoral battleground. Based on its support there, the PML-Q is still publicly claiming it will secure a winning number of seats. Few observers, however, believe this is likely and say it is far more probable that the party that has formed the government since 2002 will lose to the PPP.

In the northern city of Parachinar, scene of the suicide bomb attack on Saturday, authorities have imposed a curfew. It is unclear whether voting will go ahead. "We have imposed a curfew to avert any riots. If the situation remains calm then we may relax it," Zaheer-ul-Islam, the district's senior government administrator, told Reuters.

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