PATHAN KOT, Pakistan – Election banners and flags of all three of Pakistan’s main political parties flutter across Punjab, the country’s biggest province and the main battleground for votes in a February 18 election.
But the mood is far from festive in the run-up to the parliamentary elections overshadowed by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on December 27.
Cold winter rain has turned many country roads in the province to mud, but it is rising prices that are the main complaint and would appear to bode ill for the party that backs President Pervez Musharraf and has ruled under him.
“Feeding my family is my biggest worry. What do I care about politics if half my children go to bed hungry?” said Jumma Khan, an unemployed laborer and father-of-10, in the small town of Pathan Kot in central Punjab.
The elections are for a lower house of parliament, from where a new prime minister and government will be drawn to govern in cooperation with Musharraf, and for four provincial assemblies.
The vote in Punjab, home to half of Pakistan’s 160 million people, is likely to decide the result. The province has 148 seats of the 272 up for grabs. Another 70 seats in the 342-seat National Assembly are reserved for non-Muslims and women.
The main challengers to the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (PML) are Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the party of another former prime minister and bitter Musharraf opponent, Nawaz Sharif.
Khan said he voted for the PML in the last election in 2002 but wouldn’t this time.
“I’ll stamp the lion in the hope that they can get me work,” said Khan, referring to the symbol of Sharif’s party, called the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) but widely referred to as PML-N or Nawaz League.
Musharraf’s popularity has plummeted since he tried to oust the country’s top judge in March and imposed six weeks of emergency rule in November, analysts say.
But Musharraf tells reporters who ask him about his sliding popularity that he still has support in the countryside, where most Pakistanis live.
There is little evidence of that in Punjab, where farmers say they are being squeezed by higher prices for fertilizer, pesticides, electricity and fuel.
“Musharraf and his people are joking with the poor. God knows how we’re surviving,” said farm laborer Amjad Ali, who said he made 150 rupees ($2.40) a day when he got work.
December’s consumer price index showed food prices had risen over 12 percent from a year earlier, and last week the government launched a scheme to provide food ration cards for millions of poor families.
“They don’t even feel ashamed for what they’ve done,” cobbler Mohammad Akram said in the town of Kabirwala in central Punjab, referring to the pro-Musharraf PML.
“There’s been no improvement. See for yourself, the roads are in ruins, there’s unemployment and poverty everywhere.”
Akram said many of his relatives and friends would abandon the PML.
“Why should we vote for them this time?” he asked, standing in mud as a drizzle fell outside a tea shop where farmers bundled up in shawls watched an Indian movie on cable television.
Political analysts say Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party is likely to win a sympathy vote after her assassination and several people said her party deserved to win.
“All politicians are equally corrupt. I don’t expect anything from them or Musharraf but she sacrificed her life for democracy, for Pakistan. My vote is for the PPP,” said Rashid Ahmed, 18, working at a petrol station in the town of Sargodha.
But analysts say the pro-Musharraf party has fielded many strong candidates who will still win seats. It also has the support of powerful families that have held sway over parts of the countryside for generations and command banks of votes.
Cotton farmer Allah Bakhsh said the price of pumping water to irrigate his fields had shot up as had the price of fertilizer.
“We’ve been stuffed by rising prices,” he said, but added he would vote for PML, because the candidate was the leader of his tribe in Dera Ghazi Khan district.