Anger grips electorate ahead of Pakistani elections

( dpa )- Deen Mohammad holds a blue plastic bag in his hands.

"I brought it empty, and I might take it back home empty," the 61-year-old said.

For the fourth day in a row, he has been waiting since 6 am in front of a store in Karachi to buy subsidized flour and cooking oil.

Mohammad is not unemployed, but the prices of basic foodstuffs have become so expensive lately in Pakistan that he can no longer afford them without state help.

The price hikes have fed anger against the government of President Pervez Musharraf, and that anger is palpable in Pakistan's largest city ahead of Monday's parliamentary elections.

"This government is responsible for the demise of the poor," Mohammad charged.

He and other people waiting outside the store had bought food on the free market before prices shot up, but now the added costs have increased his burden as he seeks to feed his family on less than 70 dollars a month.

"How can you survive on that?" he asked.

He, therefore, waits for a truck loaded with low-quality subsidized goods to arrive. It will be mobbed, and during the past several days, he has been unable to battle past the younger people in line to buy the goods and has gone home empty-handed.

"I can't keep up with them," Mohammad said. "I have no hope."

The hopes of many Pakistanis lie instead with a party that is contesting the elections behind a dead woman. On signs all over Karachi, a stronghold of the Pakistani People's Party (PPP), the face of its former leader, assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto looks out on potential voters. A personality cult has flamed up around her since her December 27 death.

"I feel like an orphan since she died," PPP member Ejaz Durrani said outside the Bhutto family residence in Karachi. "I would have been less sad if my mother or father had died."

On weekends, party functionaries play Bhutto's last speech at ear-splitting levels on loudspeakers set up in front of her house. The speech was made at a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi outside Islamabad minutes before Bhutto died in a gun and suicide bomb attack there.

A survey showed that a mere 16 per cent of Pakistanis believe government assertions that she was killed my Islamic militants, indicating how far Musharraf's credibility has eroded. Thirty-nine per cent hold security services or people with security connections responsible for the attack.

Bhutto's voice from the grave promises reforms to benefit the poor. It sounds out from a loudspeaker set up near a chair on which a large portrait of Bhutto sits amid rose petals. Three 11-year-old schoolgirls lay flowers on a nearby platform that is already covered in bouquets.

Polls indicate the PPP is the strongest party going into the vote, and analysts predicted it would win if the polling is free and fair. Musharraf has promised a legitimate election, but doubts are numerous that it would proceed without fraud.

Before the balloting, not only opposition parties but also Pakistani media and independent observers have reported severe voting manipulation in the works by the Pakistani Muslim League-Quaid, which backs Musharraf and is threatened with a significant loss.

Musharraf himself is not up for election Monday, but the voting is seen as a referendum on his rule. His popularity has plummeted since he sacked the nation's top judges, and the economy is struggling.

Although the United States counts the former military chief as a partner in the fight against terrorism, a rising wave of terrorist attacks have caused fear among Pakistanis. The latest came Saturday when a suicide bomber killed at least 40 people at a campaign rally for an independent candidate supported by the PPP.

"We are politically bankrupt," political analyst Ikram Sehgal said, adding that he believes the president's days are numbered.

After the election, Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, would have to share power with an opposition prime minister, Sehgal said, adding, "His personality does not allow him to give up power even for one second."

The powerful Army is even distancing itself from its former commander, said Sehgal, who added that he believes Musharraf would last a maximum of six more months as president.

Sehgal is not alone in wanting Musharraf out. In an editorial criticizing the president, the newspaper Dawn said, "We have suffered fools for way too long without doing anything about it. ... Think about that before you vote."

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