Musharraf weighing key concessions to smooth fraught elections
The Associated Press
By Munir Ahmad

ISLAMABAD Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf may suspend local mayors and scrap a two-term limit for prime ministers as concessions to blunt criticism that Pakistan’s elections will be rigged, a senior official said Friday.

Musharraf is considering whether to grant an opposition demand for the suspension of mayors to prevent them from influencing the vote, Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said.

“This is under the active consideration of the government and a decision I think is likely to be taken today or tomorrow,” Qayyum said on Dawn News television. “I think now it’s for the president to decide.”

The U.S.-backed leader may also lift a ban on anyone serving more than twice as prime minister, Qayyum said.

That could ease his fraught relations with opposition leaders and archrivals Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

But a senior member of Bhutto’s party said removing the mayors less than four weeks before the elections was “eyewash” for the international community.

“Everything this regime wanted to do has already been done for its rigging plan,” Senator Raza Rabbani said, alleging that biased police and officials were all in place.

Musharraf cast Pakistan into turmoil and raised serious doubts over the credibility of next month’s parliamentary elections by imposing a state of emergency on Nov. 3.

He is expected to lift the emergency and restore the constitution Saturday. But he still faces a barrage of criticism both at home and abroad that the Jan. 8 ballot will be flawed.

Both Musharraf and his Western backers say they want the election to produce a stable, moderate government strong enough to stand up to a wave of Islamic militancy.

However, Bhutto and Sharif have warned that they will not accept a vote rigged in favor of pro-Musharraf parties and called for mass demonstrations in protest.

Musharraf said he seized emergency powers to prevent political chaos and to give authorities a freer hand against Islamic militants. With the constitution suspended, Musharraf purged the judiciary, jailed thousands of opponents and silenced privately owned television news channels.

Critics accuse him of making a power grab before the old Supreme Court could rule on the legality of his continuing as president. Musharraf stepped down as army chief last month and has relaxed some of the restrictions.

Qayyum said Thursday that, before reinstating the constitution, Musharraf would amend it to protect his decisions from court review.

Bhutto and Sharif have abandoned threats to boycott the elections, saying they cannot leave the field open to rivals, and began touring the country to stump for votes.

Bhutto’s party is urging the government to provide her with more security before a weekend trip to the southwestern city of Quetta, where two suicide bombers killed 10 people on Thursday.

Bhutto narrowly escaped a suicide bombing that killed 149 people during a parade to welcome her back from exile in the southern city of Karachi on Nov. 18.

Investigators have yet to identify those responsible for either that attack or Thursday’s blasts in Quetta.

However, Musharraf has blamed a pro-Taliban warlord from the mountainous border zone for a spate of suicide attacks in Pakistan this year.

Jamming equipment provided by authorities to prevent the detonation of remote-controlled bombs near Bhutto’s car is faulty, and she needs four police cars instead of three to shield her vehicle, party spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.

The government, meanwhile, dismissed an opinion poll indicating that 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 Sharif, another former prime minister, 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 3 percentage points.

Presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi said the poll misrepresented the true sentiments of Pakistanis and was driven by “vested interests,” the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported.

Associated Press writers Zarar Khan, Stephen Graham and Paul Alexander in Islamabad and Abdul Sattar in Quetta contributed to this report.

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