A wave of defections from Pakistan's ruling party ahead of parliamentary elections is compounding the woes of Pervez Musharraf at a time of rampant Islamic militancy, soaring food prices and anger over the U.S.-backed president's maneuvering to prolong his eight years in power.
Most analysts expect the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to win the most seats in the Feb. 18 vote, profiting from a sympathy vote over her Dec. 27 assassination, while a party led by another ex-premier, Nawaz Sharif, is predicted to do well in cities.
The pro-Musharraf party, Pakistan Muslim League-Q, is banking on victory in rural areas of Punjab, the largest province, which accounts for 183 of 342 National Assembly seats. But 13 National Assembly and 18 provincial assembly candidates have left the PML-Q, according to figures compiled from officials in the three main parties. They include two ministers in the outgoing Cabinet.
"I cannot go in my constituency to ask for votes in the name of the last Musharraf government. I have seen that Musharraf and his associates have lost confidence among the public," said Mazhar Qureshi, a lawmaker for the Punjab city of Sargodha who has defected to Sharif's party.
The PML-Q defends its record and says it has promoted economic development. It also says lawmakers flitting between parties is customary in Pakistan's politics.
"It is a democratic process. People keep on changing parties. We have over 200 candidates all over Pakistan. If a few go to another party, it is not a big deal. It is not a defection in our ranks," said Kamil Ali Agha, the PML-Q's spokesman for Punjab.
Musharraf's presidency isn't at stake in this election — he secured a new five-year term as president in a controversial parliamentary vote in October. But he could be impeached for purging the judiciary in November if opposition parties muster a two-thirds majority in the new parliament.
Analyst: Tough time coming at the polls
The election is difficult to call. There are no reliable opinion polls, and the opposition claims the vote will be rigged. But it is clear that many regard Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, as an electoral liability after he declared a state of emergency and sacked top judges who threatened his dominance.
"Some candidates are fearful of their chances at the polls, and that's because of Musharraf and it's prompted them to change sides," said political analyst Shafqat Mahmood.
Another reason is the PML-Q's leadership — cousins Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Pervaiz Elahi. They are old-style politicians with little public support but strong roots in the Punjab provincial administration they have dominated for five years.
"Most of the crisis in the PML-Q is over the way the Chaudhrys have handled the party, and their cynical world view. They are only comfortable with people who are related to them or personally loyal to them," Mahmood said.
Call for transparent voting measures
More than a dozen of their close relatives are running for parliament for the PML-Q, and according to the respected Dawn newspaper, members of the Chaudhry clan make up nearly a quarter of the party's candidates for the National Assembly seats in Punjab.
"It's an outdated, medieval kind of politics they practice," Jehangir Tareen, industry minister in the outgoing government, told The Associated Press by phone. "The Chaudhrys did not like me at all. I survived in the party under the protection of the president."
Tareen says he remains a Musharraf loyalist and supports the president's "reform agenda," but is disenchanted with the PML-Q. He is among a batch of heavyweight politicians who have ditched the party in the south of Punjab, gambling on their popularity to get them elected anyway.
Meanwhile, media watchdogs accuse the state TV network of heavy bias in favor of Musharraf's allies, and an independent network says its transmissions were blocked for several hours after it aired a program late Wednesday featuring a Musharraf critic.
The parties of Bhutto and Sharif both claim the regime is planning to rig the vote — an allegation Musharraf strongly denies, citing the introduction of more transparent voting procedures.