Suicide car bomber kills 37 at Bhutto party office as Pakistan poll nears

Two more attacks on the final day of the campaign mean election ends, as it began, in violence
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A suicide car bomb killed 37 people outside a candidate's office in the violent north-west of Pakistan yesterday, the final day of campaigning for an election meant to complete the transition to civilian rule.

With the country due to go to the polls tomorrow against a backdrop of growing violence, a further 90 people were injured in the blast, which was close to the office of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) candidate in the town of Parachinar, in the Kurram region on the Afghan border. Many of those killed were supporters of the late Benazir Bhutto's party.

The bombing happened minutes after a party rally concluded. Zafar Ali, a PPP supporter at the scene, said: "Several of our party members are lying in a pool of blood. We are taking the injured and dumping them in pick-up trucks and vans to bring them to the hospital."

Also in the north-west yesterday, another suicide car bomber killed two at a military media centre. At a third location, suspected militants bombed a polling station but no one was hurt.

Since Bhutto, who had served two terms as Pakistan's premier, returned to Pakistan from exile last September to launch the PPP's campaign, the country's stumbling move towards democracy has been marred by such violence. Even Bhutto's homecoming to the city of Karachi was marked by a suicide attack that left 150 dead. She became the highest-profile victim when she was killed at a rally in December.

Though President Pervez Musharraf is not a candidate in tomorrow's election, the ballot is very much a referendum on voters' satisfaction with him. Polls suggest his approval rating is at an all-time low and that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Q) party, which he established, is set to suffer a humiliating defeat.

The polls suggest that the PPP, boosted by a wave of sympathy after Bhutto's assassination, will win the largest number of parliamentary seats and be able to form a government, possibly with the support of the party of another former premier, Nawaz Sharif.

Crucial to the outcome is whether the polls are fair. Many campaigners have alleged there have already been irregularities, and few Pakistanis believe the official outcome will be an accurate reflection of the actual voting process.

But beyond that, even if the election is reasonably fair and the PPP is able to form a government, much will depend on whether Mr Musharraf – long supported financially and politically by the West – is prepared to share power with a prime minister and government from an opposition party.

Some observers believe he has little option but to let go of some of the power he has held since seizing control in a military coup in 1999. "The locus of power will switch to the Prime Minister," said Professor Rasul Baksh Rais, a political analyst at Lahore University.

But many others believe Mr Musharraf will fight to retain a position of unyielding authority. The opposition parties have warned that if the election is unfair they will bring their supporters on to the street in protest. If they secure a two-third majority in a new parliament, they could seek the President's impeachment.

In a televised speech yesterday, Mr Musharraf insisted the election would result in a smooth transition to democracy. "We will have a stable, democratically elected government, and with the stable, democratically elected government we will ensure a successful fight against terrorism and extremism," he said.

Mr Musharraf has been under pressure from a democracy movement led by lawyers for the past year but Pakistan's millions of impoverished citizens will be voting with their stomachs. Prices of food have soared and many blame the government for doing nothing to help the poor.

Meanwhile, the PPP must persuade people that the fight against Islamic militants is "our own war", not just America's, if it wins, said Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's husband and now PPP leader. He would not say whether his party would be willing to work with President Musharraf.

Election briefing

National and provincial elections will be held tomorrow.

What's at stake: 272 seats in the lower house of the national parliament, plus another 60 reserved for women and 10 for religious minorities. Provincial assemblies will also be elected.

What's the big issue: Musharraf, basically, or rather the military rule he represents. The vote takes place against a background of rising Islamic militancy, inflation and some food shortages.

Who's standing: candidates from 49 parties, from reformist groups to fundamentalist Muslims.