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15 July 2024

Bhutto's party rallies in Pakistan political heartland

By Agencies


Thousands of supporters of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto gathered in Pakistan's political heartland on Thursday for her party's last major rally ahead of key elections.

The meeting in the central industrial city of Faisalabad came as the third survey in a week showed President Pervez Musharraf's popularity plummeting, with most Pakistanis saying he was an obstacle to stability.

Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari will pump up the crowds in a final push for the crucial battleground of Punjab province -- home to more than half of the nuclear-armed nation's 160 million people.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party is relying on a big sympathy vote following her assassination at a campaign rally in December, but still faces stiff competition in Punjab from Musharraf's deeply entrenched allies.

"It is likely that the Faisalabad gathering will be the last big PPP meeting in Punjab before the elections," party spokesman Farhatullah Babar told AFP.

"We are expecting a big crowd, more than what we had in Thatta" in southern Pakistan, when police said more than 100,000 people turned out on Saturday.

Security was heavy with walk-through scanners and police checking those entering the venue, an AFP correspondent said. A bulletproof glass screen was placed at the stage where Zardari was set to speak.

Pakistan has been rocked by four attacks on political targets in the past week and the government has issued warnings of further attacks.

Police said on Wednesday that two men seized last week had admitted in court that they were at the scene of Bhutto's assassination and had provided shelter to the suicide bomber at a house in Rawalpindi the night before the attack.

One of them allegedly told police he wanted to "avenge" the killing of his close friend during a military raid on Islamabad's hardline Red Mosque in 2007, he added. The mosque operation killed more than 100 people.

Musharraf has already accused an Al Qaeda-linked militant of orchestrating Bhutto's murder.

But a poll carried out for the BBC Urdu service on Thursday found 64 per cent of Pakistanis said stability would improve if Musharraf quit, while three quarters wanted him to quit.

Almost 40 per cent said they thought Pakistani security agencies or people linked to them were responsible for Bhutto's death.

US pollsters earlier this week tipped the PPP to sweep to victory next week but it is still campaigning to win the key prize of Punjab.

The province is where allies of Musharraf's former ruling party are most powerful, while former premier Nawaz Sharif's stronghold is in the provincial capital of Lahore.

Zardari warned in an interview with AFP late Wednesday that he may call for civil disobedience if "pre-rigging" by the authorities robs his party of victory.

"We will call for all the political forces to get together, and together we shall decide how to take the people to the streets, how to do political agitation enough to get our point of view across," he said.

Yet he also left the door open for post-election power-sharing with not only Sharif but also the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim-League-Q, saying he wanted a "government of national consensus with everybody".

The PML-Q's candidate to be prime minister if it wins the polls, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, said his party too would be ready to work with other groups but he disputed the findings of recent polls.

"We are going to sweep in Punjab," he told AFP.

Asked about possible coalitions, he said: "It all depends how many seats we get and they get after the elections. In the interest of the country... we are ready to fit with anyone."

Separately, a group of opposition parties that is boycotting the election, including that of former cricketer Imran Khan, said it planned to hold a rally on Thursday at the spot in Rawalpindi where Bhutto was killed. (AFP)