Pakistan election body not independent: rights group
Agence France-Presse

ISLAMABAD – Human Rights Watch on Tuesday warned that Pakistan’s Election Commission had failed to investigate reports of campaign violations, threatening the validity of next week’s crucial national polls.

The New York-based group said in a statement that the commission had ignored reports of arrests and harassment of opposition party members, and failed to act independently from the administration of President Pervez Musharraf.

“There have been numerous complaints of improper government assistance to the ruling party and illegal interference with opposition activities,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director.

“But the Election Commission has done nothing significant to address these problems, raising serious questions about its impartiality.”

Pakistan goes to the polls on February 18, but campaigning has so far been lacklustre amid government warnings of attacks on rallies after the killing of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in December.

Human Rights Watch said that election candidates had so far filed more than 1,500 complaints of irregularities, but few had been investigated.

These included reports of police obstructing opposition rallies, threatening opposition candidates, removing posters for opposition parties and putting up banners of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) party.

The group also questioned the impartiality of the Election Commission, whose chief commissioner and other key members were directly appointed by the president.

“The Election Commission’s lack of independence and impartiality is among the crucial structural issues impeding free and fair elections,” HRW said.

There was no immediate comment from the Election Commission.

Two surveys released Monday by US-based groups found that Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party was the most popular in the country, with 50 percent of respondents in one poll saying they would vote for the PPP.

Some 22 percent said they would support the party of former premier Nawaz Sharif, while Musharraf’s allies in the PML-Q only garnered 14 percent support, a survey by the International Republican Institute said.

A wave of deadly attacks has raised fears about the security of the elections in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Nearly 100 people have been killed so far this year in attacks blamed by the government on Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. On Monday, a suicide bomb killed at least nine people heading to an election rally.

Some opposition party members have accused the government of playing up security threats against politicians in a bid to dampen campaigning in favour of parties that support Musharraf.

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