MULTAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - The strength of a sympathy vote for assassinated Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in the country’s biggest province is likely to determine the result of a general election on February 18.
The vote could seal the fate of President Pervez Musharraf, even though it is not a presidential election, with opponents calling for the increasingly unpopular leader to step down.
“Certainly there’s a sympathy vote,” said Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, a vice chairman of Bhutto’s party standing in Punjab province, where half the country’s 160 million people live and half of its members of parliament will be elected.
“If there’s a free, fair and transparent election the PPP will be number one,” Gilani said at his house in the city of Multan, while aides bustled about in the gloom of a power cut.
Months of political turmoil and militant violence have raised worries about the stability for the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
Fear of violence has stifled election campaigning, especially after Bhutto was killed on December 27 in an attack the government blamed on militants, and is also expected to hurt turnout in the election for a National Assembly and four provincial assemblies.
A suicide bomb attack on Saturday at a rally by an ethnic Pashtun nationalist party opposed to Musharraf killed at least 16 people.
Opposition parties have also complained of rigging in favor of Musharraf’s allies.
The main challengers to the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (PML) are Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the party of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted in a coup in 1999. Punjab is their main battleground.
“She was very brave and gave Musharraf a tough time, which nobody else has dared to do. People should vote for her party,” Punjab laborer Jumma Khan said of Bhutto.
Musharraf, who stepped down as army chief in November, has lost popularity over his efforts to cling to power, which included the purging of the judiciary and gagging of the media after he imposed a six-week stint of emergency rule on November 3.
His security ties with the United States are also unpopular.
But it is inflation, power cuts and shortages of the staple flour and natural gas that could scupper the election hopes of the PML, which has been ruling under Musharraf.
Musharraf won re-election for another five-year term as president in an October vote by legislators. But critics say he has held on to power unconstitutionally and he could face efforts to unseat him in an opposition-dominated parliament.
Bhutto’s party is expected to sweep rural areas of her home province of Sindh and split the vote in its capital, Karachi, with a pro-Musharraf party.
It also looks set to make gains in Punjab, which has the country’s most independent voters, unattached to a party and free from caste or tribal voting compulsions, said political analyst and academic Rasul Bakhsh Rais.
“The People’s Party has a much brighter chance now than it probably could have had with Bhutto on the scene,” Rais said of the sympathy vote. “Punjab is key and I see some change in Punjab in their favor.”
Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), known as the PML-N or Nawaz League, is also expected to do well in Punjab, particularly in urban areas, and could be the biggest there if a sympathy swing to the PPP fizzles.
Sharif’s party and the PPP look likely to be in a position to establish a dominant coalition, if they want, analysts say.
But Musharraf’s allies cannot be written off. They are fielding strong candidates and have support from powerful families who command banks of votes in the countryside.
Former President Farooq Leghari, standing for the PML in his home district of Dera Ghazi Khan in Punjab, said his party would win although it was being hurt by rising prices and shortages, and discontent with Musharraf.
“People see Musharraf, his leading the so-called war on terror at the behest of the West, as a major factor,” said Leghari, who as president dismissed Bhutto’s government in 1996 over accusations of corruption and misrule.
“There was a tremendous, huge, crest of sympathy for her but it is ebbing,” he said of Bhutto. “What is going to hurt the PML is more the increase in prices and so on rather than any special performance by the other parties.”
Editing by Alex Richardson