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Courting votes, and death, in Pakistan

In the violence-plagued nation, people expect politicians to get out and campaign, though a bomb or assassin may be at the next rally.

February 08, 2008|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

LALAMUSA, PAKISTAN — Riding in his chauffeured Land Cruiser, Babar Awan is on a mission many consider almost suicidal: He's a politician stumping on one of the world's deadliest campaign trails.

Weeks before the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections, the veteran lawmaker is canvassing in this northern Pakistani town where goats wander the streets and residents remain fiercely loyal to President Pervez Musharraf.

Awan knows he's in enemy territory. In late December, his party's leader, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated after an open-air election rally in Rawalpindi, another Musharraf stronghold not far away. Awan is nervous, and he has brought armed guards.

This is Pakistan, a perilous realm of suicide bombings and social unrest where politicians are targets. It's an atmosphere of fear many blame on Musharraf, a former army general who has close ties to Pakistan's powerful military, a force known here simply as "the establishment."

Bhutto's allies suspect government involvement in her killing. Pakistani officials blame Taliban extremists based in border areas near Afghanistan.

Since the attack, Musharraf has banned large rallies, saying he wants to protect candidates. But many politicians have ignored the law -- because, they say, Pakistanis demand it.

Voters here expect to see their politicians in person, waving from limousines and giving fiery speeches as onlookers snap photos with cellphones.

"Before you vote for somebody, you must shake their hand and look closely at their face," said resident Masroor Ghani as he arrived at the Lalamusa rally. "How else can you judge them?"

But as Bhutto did before her death, opposition candidates such as Awan say Musharraf has refused to provide them adequate protection, forcing them to rely on private security and hope for the best.

Awan, a dark-eyed lawyer with a pencil mustache, enters a walled park flanked by a dozen security guards. At the gate, he brushes past a few government-assigned soldiers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles. They look away, as if to show disdain for their assignment of safeguarding the president's political rivals.

The tension is palpable. Men with woolen scarves around their shoulders flinch at the blast of a car horn. Slipping through the all-male crowd at this political rally, an event where women typically are not welcome, Awan tries to appear unruffled.

Some say Awan could succeed Bhutto to lead the Pakistan People's Party as its candidate for prime minister if it wins enough seats to try to form a government.

Awan, 54, says that if asked, he would accept the challenge. He'd do it for the slain Bhutto, an old friend. Such risks are now part of the political landscape, he says.

"I know I could be killed," he said. "Being a politician in Pakistan today is like sitting on top of a powder keg."

For many politicians, menace comes via bomb threats and text messages warning that they could be kidnapped or killed at any time.

In the southeastern province of Sindh, opposition candidates have been jailed, sending others into hiding, officials say. One candidate in the east-central province of Punjab was ambushed a few years ago. Shot in the face, he has a plastic jaw. But this year he's running for office again.

Just this week in Karachi, the country's largest city and the capital of Sindh, gunmen killed a senior official of the Awami National Party, a secular group representing Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun minority. Days earlier, a man on a motorcycle sprayed gunfire at a rally of about 100 supporters of the Pakistan People's Party, wounding one person.

Even politicians allied with Musharraf are fearful. Former Cabinet minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed, a National Assembly candidate from Rawalpindi, said political rallies nonetheless are a fact of life.

"If I'm too afraid to campaign but my opponent is out there meeting the people, what kind of message does that send?" he said.

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Not even Pakistan's president is immune from attack.

Since he seized power in 1999 in a military coup, Musharraf has escaped at least four assassination bids, all believed masterminded by Islamic militants.

Two of the attempts, in the form of bombs aimed at his convoy, took place 11 days apart, in December 2003. In October 2006 a bomb went off in a park near his residence. Last year, shots were fired at his plane as it took off from an air base.

In the murky world of Pakistani politics, experts say, attacks on public figures could come from tribal warlords, Islamic militants, Taliban extremists -- or state security forces.

Musharraf allies say they are targeted by religious extremists who oppose Pakistan's cooperation with the United States in Washington's declared "war on terror." Opposition candidates say they face attacks not only from militants looking to cause chaos, but from elements within the government.

Pakistani officials blame Bhutto's killing on Baitullah Mahsud, a tribal leader in northwest Pakistan with ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Mahsud has denied involvement.

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