Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Pakistani Election, a Big Swing Vote

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Pakistani Election, a Big Swing Vote

Article excerpt

By the measure of Pakistani politics, Mohammed Yunus just made an extraordinary statement.

The bearded salesman sits in front of his menswear store, speaking of Pakistan's two largest parties, run by longtime archrivals Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto.

"Both parties are very good," he says, adding that he would be happy if either party won.

Like many along this street, his allegiances are split, and in Pakistani politics - where devotion to candidates based on patronage, party, and clan can border on the feudal - they are precious. These people are Pakistan's swing voters, and overwhelmingly, they come from only one province, Punjab.

Monday's election drama is likely to be distilled to the bazaars and fields of this Pakistani heartland. Punjab will almost certainly determine who leads Pakistan alongside President Pervez Musharraf, experts say. Therefore, it is here that rigging will be the greatest concern, they add.

"The entire province has a swing factor," says Ijaz Gilani, president of Gallup Pakistan, a polling firm.

The result will be watched closely in the United States. US officials are increasingly seeing Pakistan's tribal belt as America's greatest security threat. Militants there have been linked to terrorist plots from Madrid to London. What the Bush administration wants most is political stability and a prime minister who will support antiterror efforts in the tribal regions.

Punjab's electoral importance stems from its size and character. With nearly 100 million people, it contains 55 percent of the Pakistani populace. And while voting patterns in the other three provinces are predictable, Punjab is prone to subtle shifts, which, given its population, can dramatically shift the balance of power in Pakistan's National Assembly.

In the past, a shift of 10 percent toward any one party has resulted in as many as 100 of the 272 seats changing hands, according to Dr. Gilani.

The statistic could be directly relevant Monday. Opinion polls suggest that support for the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), has fallen 10 percentage points in recent months, with Pakistanis blaming the government for recent spikes in inflation and violence. Given that PML-Q is almost exclusively a Punjabi party, the election in Punjab has become a race to claim these swing voters.

In and around Gujranwala, where PML-Q holds five of seven National Assembly seats, interviews suggest that other parties could make headway Monday, with as many as three of the seats possibly changing parties. Even outside the city, where the PML-Q says its strength lies, residents say they want change.

In the village of Chandni, where rickshaws give way to tractors and fields of cabbage press up against back doors, Mohammed Tariq takes a break from sawing an old stump for firewood. …

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