ATTOCK, Pakistan — Like the medieval fort that sits above the Indus River, the face of Tahir Sadiq towers over Attock, adorning billboards, banners draped from buildings and countless placards for Pakistan's national elections Monday.
The former army major isn't a candidate, however. He's the local government boss — or nazim — the overseer of public schools, the police, health care and public works, the main wielder of patronage and power in an impoverished district of 1.6 million people.
Because of that authority and because their subordinates conduct the elections and count the ballots, nazims are required by law to remain neutral.
However, "Major Sab" — a leading member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which supports Pakistan's U.S.-backed president, Pervez Musharraf — is anything but impartial, and experts and critics allege that his conduct illustrates how the party is trying to fix Monday's elections and preserve power for itself and Musharraf.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch on Friday released what it said was a recording of Pakistan's attorney general acknowledging that the national elections would be "massively" rigged. The admission is likely to increase the chances that a government victory would trigger a new round of violent protests and military crackdowns.
All across Pakistan, supposedly neutral nazims such as Sadiq are appearing at campaign rallies, providing official cars and offices to candidates, having public workers hang campaign posters, transferring uncooperative subordinates and using the police to harass the opposition, opposition leaders contended. Like Sadiq, many nazims reportedly have put close relatives on the party's ticket.
According to a report Feb. 5 by the Free and Fair Election Network, which is fielding 20,000 poll-watchers nationwide, nazims are providing some official help to candidates in the 95 districts it studied. The vast majority of them, it said, were from the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.
On his banners and at rallies, Sadiq exhorts voters to give the Attock district's three National Assembly seats to his daughter and her husband and to his brother-in-law, the party's choice to be the next prime minister.
Sadiq has awarded virtual lifetime jobs to thousands of contract workers and hired nearly 1,500 unbudgeted police officers, moves that independent fact-finders have slammed as illegal "pre-poll rigging and political bribes to influence voters," yet which the pro-Musharraf federal election commission hasn't challenged.
"There can't be free and fair elections," growled Mohammad Farhan, the owner of two appliance stores near Fuwara Chowk, Attock's bustling main square. "How can you go against him (Sadiq)?"
"District nazims and administrations . . . are practically the leaders of the Q," said Zafarullah Khan, the executive director of the Center for Civic Education Pakistan, an independent voter-education and monitoring group. "This is legalized illegality. They have given their brothers and fathers, mothers and daughters as candidates to the PML-Q. They have given their whole families to the ruling party."
The party appears to be facing a massive defeat because of its support for Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 military coup. It backed him last year as he altered the constitution, purged the Supreme Court, detained thousands of critics, muzzled the media and imposed a state of emergency so that he could extend his term while he was still army chief, a post he relinquished only under intense U.S. pressure.
The Bush administration regards Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally in fighting al Qaida in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan. But his cooperation with the United States has hurt his standing at home, which dropped this week to an all-time low, as did that of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.
New opinion surveys put the party's nationwide support at 12-14 percent; it received no more than 19 percent in its stronghold of Punjab.
The polls appear to confirm predictions that the main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party will ride a sympathy wave from the assassination Dec. 27 of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
A survey by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. democracy-building group, found that 80 percent of Pakistanis would considered the polls rigged if the Pakistan Muslim League-Q won the most seats. Fifty-five percent would support protests, "indicating a potential for post-election turmoil should that event occur," the institute warned.
Musharraf, Pakistan Muslim League-Q leaders and the federal election commission say that the election will be free and fair.
But analysts said Attock provided a troubling snapshot of what was happening elsewhere, especially in Punjab.
Sadiq couldn't be found for comment despite repeated phone calls and a visit to his offices in Attock, the seat of an impoverished agricultural district that hosts several major military bases, one of which was hit by a suicide bombing Dec. 10.
His daughter and son-in-law denied in interviews that he's using his power to influence voters. They said that admirers who were grateful for new roads, clinics and schools had put up the billboards that festoon the area, ignoring Sadiq's requests to desist.
"People are loving us," Sadiq's son-in-law Chaudhry Waseem Gulzar, a 34-year-old Lahore businessman, said in his campaign office, where McClatchy was given a handbill announcing Sadiq's appearance at an upcoming campaign rally. "These posters, people are doing that. We can't stop them."
Malik Amin Aslam, a Western-educated former junior environment minister who's battling to retain the seat that Sadiq's daughter, Eman Tahir, is seeking, sees things differently.
"A person who is supposed to be impartial is campaigning," Aslam said.
The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, an independent monitoring group partly funded by the United States, sent a fact-finding mission to Attock after Aslam and 14 other independents and opposition hopefuls formed a Front for Free Elections to expose what they charged were Sadiq's "open violations" of campaign laws.
In a report Jan. 15, the group dismissed a charge that 15,000 public workers assigned to run the polls were coerced into filing absentee ballots for Tahir, Gulzar and Sadiq's brother-in-law, former Punjab chief minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi.
The group found, however, that on the day the elections were announced, Elahi authorized Sadiq to guarantee jobs until age 60 to 14,000 public workers on five-year contracts. "The action clearly falls into the domain of pre-poll rigging," the group said.
The mission also condemned the district's hiring of 1,476 new police officers — more than doubling the authorized force — as a bid to steal votes for the Pakistan Muslim League-Q candidates. The recruits have gotten little training and few duties, and they're housed in tents for the victims of a 2006 earthquake.
ON THE WEB
The Free and Fair Election Network: http://fafen.org
The International Republican Institute Pakistan poll: http://www.iri.org/mena/pakistan/pdfs/2007-12-12-pakistan-poll-index.pdf
The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency report: http://www.pildat.org/publications/publication/elections/FFM%20Attock%20Report%20Election%202008.pdf