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Pakistan Prepares for Elections

ALEX COHEN, host:

We turn now to Pakistan, which will hold its parliamentary elections on the 18th. Voting was originally scheduled for last month, but was delayed following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Today, in the town of Rawalpindi, police arrested two more suspects in her death.

For more on the elections, we go now to Najam Sethi. He's a newspaper editor in Pakistan. Welcome back to the program. And we should begin by noting that your publications have been supportive of Bhutto's party, the Pakistan Peoples Party. Can you tell us what the mood is like right now in Pakistan heading into this election?

Mr. NAJAM SETHI (Newspaper Editor): The mood is not terribly upbeat as far as the election campaigning is concerned. Almost every politician of any repute is on the so-called hit list of the terrorists. And everyday the government claims to have arrested new terrorists who are about to go and blow up people. So there isn't really a campaign out there as such.

Having said that, I think we are still on track for the elections for on February 18. And it's a toss-up whether or not there will be a fair turn out or whether people will stay indoors. It's not entirely clear whether the terrorists have managed to derail this election or whether it will go ahead, in terms of the numbers.

COHEN: I understand that there has been calls for international monitors to come in to watch these elections, but it's been difficult to bring them in because of the fighting that's going on there.

Mr. SETHI: Yes and no. I think the polling stations are fairly well protected in terms of potential targets. I don't think that's a problem. The serious issue really is that if these election monitors do come in and if they turn around and say the elections are rigged or if they want to do any exit polls and the government doesn't allow them to do the exit polls because the government doesn't want their exit polls clashing with what will be the election results, there could be trouble.

And I think one of the reasons why say, for example, the International Republican Institute has pulled out or the NDI is not coming has to do with this fact that perhaps their polling could be an embarrassment to the government of Pakistan.

COHEN: For the supporters of Benazir Bhutto, what are they hoping to achieve out of this election?

Mr. SETHI: Well, you know, the supporters are hoping that they will bring out their votes in big numbers. There is a wave of sympathy for Ms. Bhutto, especially in her home province of Sindh. So at the very least everyone expects the Peoples Party to get a majority.

Now, it remains to be seen the extent which a popular yearning is thwarted. Almost everybody in this country thinks that there is going to be rigging and that the government is not going to allow the people to have their voice.

COHEN: Following the death of Benazir Bhutto, her son was tapped to eventually take on her role as leader of the party. What role, if any, will he play in these elections?

Mr. SETHI: He's not playing any role. He's back at Oxford. He's not going to be around for two or three years. Indeed, he hasn't even come back to Pakistan to be with his father. Yesterday was the end of the 40th day of mourning and thousands of people went to Sindh to be there with Mr. Zardari, but the son wasn't there. So clearly he means to stay out of Pakistani politics for the foreseeable future.

COHEN: Mr. Sethi, these elections have been rescheduled a number of times now. Do you think that they will actually be able to be pulled off this time on February 18?

Mr. SETHI: Well, that is a question, believe it or not, many Pakistanis are still asking with only ten days to go. The fear is that a major assassination of a major political leader could derail elections. Alternatively, there could be ethnic riots in a city which is terribly (unintelligible) like Karachi.

But having said that, I think it's going to be terribly difficult to postpone them now. Most of the opposition parities will object to it and a postponement could open a Pandora's Box and could create further difficulties for President Musharraf.

COHEN: Najam Sethi is a newspaper editor in Pakistan. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. SETHI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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