PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Election day has arrived in nuclear-armed Pakistan, but few here expect Monday's elections to be free and fair or produce a stable government capable of arresting a growing Islamic insurgency or defusing the threat to the United States posed by al Qaida from its sanctuary in the remote tribal region.
"I don't see a resolution of the major issues," worried former Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, who survived two suicide bombing attacks last year, in an interview at his heavily guarded ancestral estate some 20 miles from Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province. "There will be more chaos."
Voting here got off to a slow start, something political observers said was to be expected as residents waited to see how the day unfolded before risking a trip to the polls.
At F.G. Boys Primary School No. 2, the polling station still hadn't opened 40 minutes after the official start of voting, but there were few voters to complain. An opposition poll watcher, who declined to give his name, said the delay in opening might be part of an orchestrated plan to suppress turnout. Traffic was light throughout the city.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, paramilitary troops and police have been deployed across the nation, but they did little stop prevent violence on Sunday. At least five people died in attacks on security forces, candidates and campaign offices on Sunday.
Authorities imposed a curfew in Parachinar, the capital of the Kurram tribal agency, as clashes flared a day after a massive bomb blast killed at least 47 members of slain prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party.
No single party is expected to win a majority of the 342 National Assembly seats, and there appears to be little prospect that any combination of parties will be able to forge a durable coalition or to co-exist with President Pervez Musharraf.
And no matter the outcome, the Pakistani army will remain plagued by serious shortcomings in fighting the militants. Those hurdles range from a lack of counter-insurgency training to the forbidding terrain of the tribal belt in which al Qaida gained safe haven after the Bush administration failed to block its escape from Afghanistan in 2001.
The combination of a paralyzed or weak government and a hamstrung military will leave Pakistanis with little hope of a respite from months of political chaos, growing economic turmoil or bloodshed, including a surge in suicide bombings whose hundreds of victims include Bhutto.
Deadlocks on the political and military fronts will also mean that the United States and other Western nations will continue to face a growing threat of terrorism by fanatics indoctrinated and trained in al Qaida camps along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
"If we see a gridlocked Islamabad, then we are in for more of the same, and I think that that for the United States and other Western nations' security interests would be disastrous," said a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We cannot afford more of the same."
Recent opinion surveys project Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party winning the most seats, boosted by a wave of sympathy over her slaying, which most Pakistanis believe involved government complicity.
The PPP is followed by the Pakistan Muslim League-N faction led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in a 1999 military coup led by Musharraf, the former army chief of staff.
The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q is forecast to run a distant third, widely despised for supporting him last year as he purged independent judges, muzzled the free press, detained thousands of critics and ordered legally dubious constitutional changes that extended his term for five years while still army chief.
Musharraf, hailed by the Bush administration as an "indispensable" ally in the war against al Qaida, retired from the military in December under intense U.S. pressure.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Q has also been hurt by Musharraf's cooperation with the United States, skyrocketing prices, food and fuel shortages and allegations of massive corruption.
There are widespread concerns that the party has used its control of local administrations to cadge votes, particularly in Punjab, which has the lion's share of National Assembly seats and the most powerful provincial assembly.
The administrations have dispensed thousands of public jobs, used the police to intimidate voters, provided official vehicles to candidates, ordered municipal workers to distribute campaign materials and actively campaigned for candidates in violation of election laws, official and independent monitors have charged.
The monitors also have expressed concerns about restrictions on the independent news media and duplications of names on voter rolls that provide opportunities for fraudulent balloting.
Musharraf promised "free, fair, transparent and peaceful" elections. But he warned opposition parties against taking to the streets if they are dissatisfied with the results.
Some 80,000 army troops and tens of thousands of other security forces and police have been mobilized to prevent terrorist attacks on the 60,000 polling stations.
A coalition between the Pakistan Peoples Party and other opposition groups is most likely to emerge if the elections are free and fair, experts said. But such a coalition could be sidetracked from dealing with Pakistan's myriad problems by demands to impeach Musharraf or undo the constitutional changes that he made to extend his term if it wins two-thirds of the National Assembly seats.
Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who assumed the leadership of the PPP, has refused to exclude a post-election deal with Musharraf even though he has accused the president of complicity in his wife's murder, which the government blamed on an insurgent leader.
But such an alliance would require politicians with deep personal and ideological differences to share power, making such a coalition unlikely to last.
Fears that insurgents will attack polling stations, particularly in North West Frontier Province, which borders the autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas where the insurgents are based, could tamp down turnout by the 80 million-strong electorate.
"Everybody loves themselves and instead of casting a vote, it's better to keep one's self safe," said Jaber Shah, 35, the owner of a small general store in Charsadda, a dust-clogged city about 15 miles from Peshawar that has been hit by bombings. "I won't even open my shop."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008