For politically vibrant South Asia, where voting often is vocal and volatile, it is one of the strangest national election campaigns ever.
There are essentially no issues or campaign themes, and few visible campaign posters and banners. Political parties are banned from participating, and outdoor rallies and processions are prohibited, as is the use of loudspeakers. Candidates, who are campaigning as individuals independent of any party affiliation, complain that they go hoarse shouting at the few indoor meetings that are held and that they are unable to get any kind of message across to the electorate.
Virtually all of the major parties have announced that they will boycott the election and will interpret its outcome as meaningless. Almost nobody, except government spokesmen and the most optimistic of the progovernment candidates, expects more than a 25 to 35 percent turnout, and the leaders of some of the outlawed opposition parties -- those who have not been arrested -- say they will be surprised if 10 percent of the electorate votes.
But Pakistan, at the insistence of the martial-law ruler, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, is going ahead on Feb. 25 with its first parliamentary election since 1977 and only the third national election since the country was founded 37 years ago with the partition of the Indian Subcontinent.
Zia, who seized power in a military takeover in July 1977 and promised free elections within 90 days, is now promising that a "new political order" will emerge out of the oft-postponed vote for the National Assembly. It will, Zia has said, be based on fundamentalist Islamic principles, and it never again will give rise to the kind of explosive party politics that led to civil turmoil, the intervention of the Army and the execution of his precedessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
In a deft political maneuver that left his opposition foundering, Zia secured a mandate on Dec. 19 to hold the partyless election and amend the long-suspended 1973 constitution. In the same referendum, he won an endorsement of his Islamic policies, on the basis of which he gave himself five more years as president.
Official results of the controversial referendum gave Zia 97.7 percent of the vote, with the government claiming that 62 percent of Pakistan's qualified electorate of 35 million cast ballots.
Opposition leaders claim that only 5 to 8 percent of the electorate voted and that the results were rigged to give the appearance of an overwhelming endorsement of Zia personally, as well as of the Islamization of the country's system of goverment.
Since the referendum, the opposition has been almost continuously off balance, with Zia first imposing qualifying criteria that would have excluded virtually all opposition candidates, and then, three days later, lifting the restrictions in a move that set off a debate within the 11-party Movement for the Restoration of Democracy over whether to participate. The movement voted on Jan. 19 to boycott both the parliamentary election and the scheduled Feb. 28 elections for provincial assemblies.
"In politics, all politicians want to run in elections. That is their calling. But this is not an ordinary election, and we will not participate unless it is under the 1973 constitution," said Mustafa Jatoi, Sind Province leader of the banned Pakistan People's Party founded by Bhutto. Sind is where the People's Party originated, and traditionally it has been the most politically conscious province.
It is widely accepted in Pakistan -- even by some of Zia's supporters -- that if the People's Party, headed by Bhutto's exiled daughter Benazir, were allowed to contest a free election, it would gain a substantial majority in the new assembly.
Asked why People's Party members are not running as independents in the partyless elections, with an eye toward gaining an ideological majority, Jatoi said the strategy was based on an expected maximum voter turnout of 20 percent.
"Where in the world would you accept a result of 20 percent? It is not a majority. No parliament has a right to legislate or form a government on that basis. So they will stand rejected. There will be a sharp reaction, and certainly the government will collapse within a few months," Jatoi said.
He said that as a result of the referendum and a low election turnout, Zia will emerge weaker within his own constituency of the military and among fundamentalist Moslems, and could become vulnerable to another military coup.
While some opposition strategists said that they would welcome a new Army junta with which they might be able to negotiate a reentry into political life, Jatoi said that is not the strategy of the People's Party.
"We are not looking to another face in uniform. We are not compromising on our demand for the restoration of the 1973 constitution before elections," he said.
Despite Jatoi's purposeful tone, however, divisions remain within the opposition alliance, with some leaders privately expressing fears that Zia may have outwitted the movement once again and that the opposition will end up more isolated than ever.
There are even divisions within the fundamentalist Islamic parties that have agreed to participate independently of party affiliation in the election, most notably the Jamat-e-Islami Party, which is fielding 60 candidates for the 237-seat National Assembly. Also supporting the election is the Moslem League of Sind Province religious leader Pir Pagaro, a pro-Zia group.
The most organized and disciplined political party in Pakistan, with strong student and trade union wings, Jamat-e-Islami is representative of the same coalition that turned on Bhutto before his ouster by Zia: small traders, shopkeepers, industrialists, landowners, religious leaders and the orthodox, urban middle class. It was the only political party to support Zia actively in the Dec. 19 referendum.
Although the consensus of the party was to join the election on the ground that it is at least a step toward democracy, its vice president, Ghafoor Ahmed, who was a member of the parliament dissolved by Zia in 1977, said he would boycott the polling because it will do nothing to restore basic human rights to Pakistanis.
"I believe in elections, but elections with a purpose. The martial-law government is keeping the purpose of these elections a secret," Ahmed said in an interview. He added, "For eight years, he Zia has deprived the nation of every fundamental right assured by Islam."
Ahmed said that if Zia resigned from the Army, lifted martial law, restored the judiciary and returned to parliament all of the powers it had in the suspended 1973 constitution, "everyone would welcome it, even the parties that are boycotting the election." But instead, Ahmed said, Zia has announced that a new National Security Council that includes the chiefs of the armed services will participate in the goverment and monitor legislation enacted by the National Assembly and the new Senate that will be formed by votes of the provincial assemblies.
"We suspect it the National Security Council will be above all elected bodies. This is martial law in another garb. It may satisfy the wishes of democratic countries like the United States, but it will not satisfy the Pakistani people, particularly in the smaller provinces like Sind and Baluchistan," Ahmed said.
Some opposition leaders said that it is unlikely that Zia would restore the 1973 constitution intact, if for no other reason than because of Article 6, which if applied by any future government would lead to Zia's arrest and possible execution for high treason. The article provides that any person who abrogates or subverts the constitution by force or show of force is guilty of high treason.
Ahmed, however, said he doubted whether the article would ever be applied, adding, "Is there any person who could try him with the Army behind him? Any civilian government in Pakistan will always be weaker than the Army."
In any case, political analysts here noted, Zia has announced that in about two weeks he will amend the 1973 constitution, and the high treason provision is likely to be among the first to go. Also likely to be drastically rewritten are provisions relating to political parties, freedom of expression, the powers of the president and prime minister, and election procedures, all of which Zia has said must be tailored to "Islamic principles." Zia also has hinted that he will give himself the power to dissolve parliament under certain conditions.
The United States, which has given Zia low-key nudges toward democracy along with $3.2 billion in military and economic assistance to bolster Pakistan as a front-line state against Soviet expansionism in the region, is likely to welcome the election, whatever the turnout.
"There is no question in my mind that this is a big step in the right direction," one U.S. diplomat said. "It seems to move things closer to more genuine representation.