- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistanis cleared out store shelves of food and essentials yesterday, fearing a cataclysmic outbreak of public anger if parliamentary elections today are perceived to be fraudulent.

“No one knows what will happen tomorrow,” said a money-changer in Islamabad who did not give his name. “We are open for business today, but tomorrow we’ll remain closed.”

Fears of what opposition leaders predict will be “massive rigging” contributed to the feeling of unease. Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the de facto leader of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), warned that he will call the party’s faithful into the streets if the election is perceived to have been rigged.

“No one will be allowed to agitate,” President Pervez Musharraf has warned since the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto on Dec. 27.

“We have a right to demonstrate,” Mr. Zardari has said, in apparent response to Mr. Musharraf’s warning.

Many Pakistanis have bought enough food and other essentials to last at least a week in the event of violence. Grocers reported panic buying on Friday and Saturday. Some said they sold more than double the amount of flour they normally sell in a week.

Karachi grocer Chaudhry Ansar Javed said people feared a repeat of severe food shortages that followed rioting in Sindh and parts of Punjab after Mrs. Bhutto’s assassination and “they are now doing panic buying.”

Drivers were reported to be filling the tanks of their vehicles to capacity, and some also were filling spare jerrycans.

The government organized about 81,000 regular troops and paramilitary rangers to help keep the peace, and Mr. Musharraf warned that the troops were ordered to shoot if agitators get out of control. Pakistanis began voting at 8 a.m.

Earlier today, a bomb exploded in a school to be used as a polling station in the volatile district of Swat, shattering windows but hurting no one, local police officer Shams-ur Rehman said, according to the Associated Press.

In Lahore, gunmen opened fire late yesterday on supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s opposition party in two incidents, killing two men and wounding 12 other persons, police said. The dead included Asif Ashraf, a provincial candidate for Mr. Sharif’s party, and one of his guards, a party spokesman said. It was not clear who carried out the attacks, the AP reported.

A series of bombings that left more than 50 people dead Friday appeared to be aimed mainly at the PPP, but were confined to the volatile tribal areas such as Parachinar and Bajaur, near the border with Afghanistan. Mr. Zardari called on his followers to remain calm.

In Lahore, where some areas are considered to be particularly sensitive, the troops rolled into the streets yesterday in a display of force.

Two major factions of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), one led by Mr. Sharif and the other by the former Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, are seen to be battling for control of Punjab, which is Pakistan’s most populous province and has the largest number of National Assembly seats.

An opinion poll conducted by the weekly Pulse and the Online International News Network showed that Mr. Sharif’s PML-N has the support of 25.1 percent of the voters nationwide, while the pro-Musharraf PML-Q, headed by Mr. Elahi, was marginally behind at 24.3 percent.

The survey showed that Mr. Zardari’s PPP was leading with 30.4 percent, while smaller parties and independents together accounted for 20.2 percent. If the election results follow this pattern, the PPP could emerge as the largest party in the next parliament but fall short of a simple majority needed to form a government.

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