Political workers in the ruling Pakistan People's Party and the opposition Pakistan National Alliance are being supplied with thousands of firearms in anticipation of a violent election campaign this fall, according to sources here.
Some opposition leaders say they are not yet convinced that Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto will allow the national elections to take place. "On the face of it, we've achieved a great deal," said retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan. "But we have nothing in writing yet, and a great many very important details remain to be setled."
Khan, perhaps the most nationally popular leader in the nine-party Alliance, said in an interview that Bhutto had approved orders for the prime minister's followers in the national and state assemblies to distribute weapons to party workers.
"Each member of the national assembly has been granted 100 gun licenses per month and each member provincial assemblies has been issued 50," Khan said.
He said that opposition workers are not able to get such licenses. Alliance sources said, however, that the opposition is receiving weapons through supporters in the Northwest Frontier Province, a "Wild West" kind of region where skilled tribesmen produce a huge variety of small arms.
Diplomatic sources in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, which is adjacent to Rawalpindi, confirmed that both parties are amassing weapons. One source said that Bhutto's party would be better armed, however, because it has "legal" access, through the licenses, to more sophisticated weapons.
Politics and violence have always gone hand in hand in Pakistan. Campaigning for the general elections in March saw numerous outbreaks of shooting, arson and rioting.
Following the elections, in which Bhutto's party captured 164 of the 200 National Assembly seats, the opposition claimed that the vote had been massively rigged. This touched of nearly three months of bloodshed. The government has announced that 240 persons were killed, by military troops and police and in interparty battles.
Khan said the figure was "over 1,000," and two Asian diplomatic souces said they believe this to be near the mark."
Although no date has been set yet for the new elections, opposition representatives said they expect them to be held about October.
But Khan expressed great skepticism that the balloting would actually take place. "Mr. Bhutto may seem to be in a corner now," he said, "but he has a great capacity for wriggling out of corners." If this happens, he added, "We'll take to the streets again."
Bhutto, who is to leave the country Saturday on a four-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, told reporters that he would sign a formal accord on the elections when he returns next week.
The prime minister was secretive about the reason for his trip, saying only that he is going because of a "development" that occurred Wednesday. Bhutto's sudden decision to leave while a formal agreement on the elections is being drafted has unsettled some opposition leaders.One Alliance source said he fears that the trip is intended "As a delaying tactic at best, and a possible way out altogether at worst."
On a more practical level, Bhutto may be seeking economic relief from the oil states of the Middle East.
The post-election violence has critically damaged the nation's economy. Observers put the overall cost at anywhere between $500 million and $1 billion. The Middle Eastern states have traditionally been extremely generous with economic assistance to Pakistan, a devoutly Islamic nation.
The Alliance completed the first draft of the election accord today. Following a discussion tonight, a second draft is to be submitted to the government Monday. In theory, Khan said, the Alliance is still demanding that Bhutto resign before the elections are held, "but we are willing to forego that if he agrees to all our other demands."
Some key demands are: dissolution of the national and provincial assemblies; appointment of new provincial governors; election security provided by the army; and establishment of a "supreme council of implementation" that would report directly to the Supreme Court on any irregularities.
The Alliance has also demanded the release of all political prisoners held since 1972. Khan said the government replied today that some would be let go immediately and others after the accord is signed next week.