For those who think the election campaign is suspenseful in the United States, come visit Pakistan.
In the United States, it may be a close contest among the Democrats – and the ultimate outcome on Nov. 4 is still hard to predict. Here the elections are full of intrigue, poll rigging and death threats.
The Pakistani elections scheduled for Monday are parliamentary elections for a new national assembly.
SLIDESHOW: Pakistan prepares for vote
President Pervez Musharraf isn't running. He already got himself elected as president for another five years last October in a somewhat shady procedure thanks to a parliament crammed with his supporters. And then he declared martial law to quell the outcry.
Yet, at the same time, these elections are all about Musharraf and whether he will be able to maintain his grip on power.
'Down with Musharraf!'
Pakistanis blame Musharraf for everything from the rise of Islamic militancy, soaring food prices, and crippling electricity blackouts, to the assassination of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Recent opinion surveys show that two-thirds of those polled want Musharraf to resign.
If one or more of the opposition parties win a parliamentary majority, they are threatening to impeach him. "Down with Musharraf!" can be heard at every opposition rally.
Noted Pakistani author, Zahid Hussain, dismisses that as campaign rhetoric."The opposition parties will not go for impeachment unless there is an untenable confrontation with Musharraf," said Hussain. "They know if they try and impeach him, it will completely unsettle the situation and things could go out of control."
But amid the outcry at the rallies, there also is talk of backroom deals. Every day there is another report or rumor that Asif Zardari, the husband of Benazir Bhutto and now the leader of her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan's largest political party, or Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the other main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-N are secretly trying to work out some sort of co-existence and power sharing with Musharraf.
|Carol Grisanti / NBC News|
|Election rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan for Pakistan Muslim League-Q candidate Sheikh Rashid Ahmad.|
Musharraf's political base is the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, (PML-Q) – a rump party he cobbled together from Nawaz Sharif's supporters after he ousted Sharif in an army coup in 1999. Sharif, exiled for eight years, is now back.
The "Q's" as Musharraf's party is called, is having a hard time due to his sinking popularity.
Meantime, all the opposition parties insist that the polls have already been heavily rigged and the vote will be compromised in favor of the "Q's." Both the PPP and the PML-N of Nawaz Sharif predict anarchy in the streets if their respective parties don't win.
Elections will be 'rigging free'
But Musharraf insists that the parliamentary elections will be free and fair.
"It is not possible to stop some sort of problems at the tactical level on the question of rigging, but we have taken all measure to make it rigging free," Musharraf told a seminar of government officials and intellectuals on Thursday.
Hardly anyone believes him.
A good friend of mine here in Islamabad called me this morning, distraught. Her name and the names of her entire family have been taken off the polling lists. That means they can't vote. When the family called the election commission to find out why, they were told they did not register in time. My friend told me that's not true. "The truth is the government knows how we voted in the last election, and they didn't like it," she said, and asked that her name not be used because of the volatility of the situation.
Most Pakistanis doubt these elections will bring stability. And none of the politicians have much to offer in the way of change.
Hoping for the best, preparing for worst
It's rather dizzying trying to make sense of it all and almost impossible to report it accurately. Everyone is on guard for something terrible to happen.
There have been death threats against many of the leading candidates as the Islamic militants try to derail the election process. Candidates have been warned to avoid large rallies for fear of suicide bombers.
Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, a former federal minister and one of Musharraf's top lieutenants, is on the terrorists' hit list. He has won every election since 1985 but this time he may be in trouble because of his links to the unpopular Musharraf.
"What do I do?" Ahmad said in a telephone interview with NBC News. "Do I campaign and try to win an election and perhaps lose my life, or do I sit at home and just give up?"