Pakistan: Voting Amid Fear

After more than five years as a leading member of Pakistan's National Assembly, Maulana Fazlur Rehman had to run for re-election without daring to leave his house. Despite his dedication to Islamist causes, some militants want the rotund, orange-turbaned Rehman dead. Soon after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, security officials warned the deputy that he too was on the jihadists' hit list. That could scarcely have been news: a rocket attack last year just missed his home, striking his brother's veranda next door. The militants hate him for taking part in the political process.

If nothing else, this week's National Assembly elections should dispel any lingering fears that Pakistan might vote its jihadists into power. The worries began after the last National Assembly contest, in 2002, when the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan provoked a massive protest vote. The Islamists, who had never drawn more than 5 percent of the ballots nationwide or 20 percent in North-West Frontier province, ended up with 56 of 342 seats in the National Assembly and took full control of NWFP's provincial assembly. Since then hard-liners have run wild in Islamist-run areas, torching music and video shops, closing girls' schools and forbidding barbers from shaving men's beards.

The Islamists also helped pass a 2003 constitutional amendment to let their sometime ally of convenience, Pervez Musharraf, stay on as both president and chief of Army staff. As this week's electoral debacle loomed, Rehman's five religious bloc partners chose to boycott the polls—this time, anyway. "We are not saying goodbye to the electoral system," says religious scholar Ata-ur Rahman, head of a big NWFP madrassa. "If we did, the only alternative would be for people to take up guns." But other Islamists say they've had it with elections. Maulvi Noor Mohammad, once a key member of Rehman's party, sat out this election. "I've wasted my time the last five years in Islamabad's Parliament," he says. "Western-style politics will not bring about a Sharia [Qur'anic law] system." He adds: "Perhaps we have to try another way."

Pakistan: Voting Amid Fear | U.S.
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