Fraud claims cloud Pakistan election key to Musharraf’s democratic image
The Associated Press
By Stephen Graham 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Less than a month before Pakistan’s election, the opposition is already claiming it will be rigged, pointing to a stacked judiciary, media intimidation and ballot papers that have allegedly been pre-marked.

A flawed election could dash Western hopes for a stable government committed to battling Islamic extremism. President Pervez Musharraf determined to show that he is sincere about bringing democracy to Pakistan has tried to blunt the opposition’s criticism by promising to lift a state of emergency ahead of the Jan. 8 vote.

He is also considering granting opposition demands that he suspend mayors to prevent them from influencing the vote and scrap a two-term limit for prime ministers, Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said Friday.

Critics say Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has used emergency powers to tilt the field in favor of his supporters. He has used the state of emergency to purge the courts, raising doubts that judges will be inclined to consider legal challenges to the results.

“There is no level playing field,” said Sarwar Bari, head of the Free and Fair Election Network, a Pakistani nongovernment group, which has more than 270 people monitoring the run-up to the vote.

A senior member of Bhutto’s party said removing the mayors, who hold sway because they hand out jobs and funds, so close to the elections was just a gesture to appease the international community.

“Everything this regime wanted to do has already been done for its rigging plan,” Senator Raza Rabbani said.

Bhutto’s party, the largest opposition group, has accused the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q of distributing thousands of ballot papers marked in its favor to ensure victory in Punjab province, Pakistan’s largest and the key to national power.

It also claims that polling stations in opposition strongholds will be shifted at the last moment to effectively disenfranchise legions of voters.

Musharraf has dismissed the claims, accusing the opposition of girding against defeat.

“We haven’t even gone for elections and they are talking of rigging and everything,” Musharraf told CNN last weekend. “This is a clear indication of their preparation for defeat. Now when they lose, they’ll have a good rationale, that it is all rigged, it is all fraud.”

But Musharraf has failed to dispel widespread concern that some of the steps already taken in the run-up to the vote will undermine its credibility.

Under a state of emergency imposed on Nov. 3, Musharraf switched off all of Pakistan’s private television news networks. Several channels have returned, after closing their main political talk shows, but the most popular one, Geo, remains off the air.

Western governments, dismayed at Musharraf’s authoritarian turn, are demanding that freedom of speech and assembly be restored. Western diplomats in Islamabad concede that the election will be flawed, but still hope it will be more credible than the 2002 polls that installed a parliament largely subservient to Musharraf.

President Bush is giving his key counterterrorism ally the benefit of the doubt.

“Do I believe that he’s going to end up getting Pakistan back on the road to democracy? I certainly hope so,” Bush said in a recent interview with ABC television.

A new opinion poll indicated 60 percent of Pakistanis disapprove of the job Musharraf is doing.

The poll by the International Republican Institute a U.S. government-financed group that has Republican lawmakers and officials among its directors and senior staff said 31 percent of those surveyed felt Bhutto was best suited to lead the country. Some 25 percent backed another former premier, Nawaz Sharif, and 23 percent chose Musharraf.

The institute said 3,520 people were interviewed in their homes nationwide during the Nov. 19-28 poll, a sampling size that generally carries an error margin of three percentage points.

In an editorial this week, the Daily Times voiced concern about how the government would reaction if the opposition swept the elections.

“Will the government risk a big rig and a big backlash or will it postpone the elections on some pretext?” the newspaper said. “Clearly we are not out of the thicket.”

Associated Press writer Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.

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