ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – President Pervez Musharraf warned Thursday that he would not tolerate protests after next week’s elections, a remark that drew a sharp reminder from Washington that Pakistanis have the right to demonstrate peacefully.
Opposition parties have threatened to launch street protests if they believe Monday’s vote for parliament has been rigged. Although Musharraf is not up for re-election, he needs a commanding majority in the legislature to block any move to impeach him.
A senior official of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto’s party said Friday his group would try to remove Musharraf if it wins the elections.
“The ouster of Musharraf will put Pakistan back on the track of real democracy,” said Babar Awan, a member of the central executive council of the Pakistan People’s Party.
“We will win if the elections are not massively rigged,” he told The Associated Press.
Recent opinion surveys show support for Musharraf’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q fading and the opposition poised for a landslide victory. Opposition politicians fear the results will be manipulated in hopes of assuring the ruling party enough seats to block any impeachment.
During remarks to a seminar in the capital, Islamabad, Musharraf said that “despite all rumors, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful.”
“We don’t know who is going to lose and who is going to win,” he said, adding “there will be no rigging.”
The former general, who seized power in a 1999 military coup, said he was committed to democracy “but not if it leads to the country being declared a failed state.”
He called on parties to “show grace” if they lose and refrain from calling their followers into the streets to allege fraud.
The opposition party headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rejected Musharraf’s warning, vowing to stage nationwide protests if the election is manipulated.
“We know Musharraf wants to rig the elections,” said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a senior member of Sharif’s party. “If he did it, we will force him to quit through street protests.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack criticized Musharraf’s suggestion that he would not tolerate protests after the election.
“People have the right to peacefully protest and to peacefully speak out on their opinions regardless of whether those opinions are supportive of a government,” he said.
“Our view and we have expressed these to all important actors in Pakistani political life, is that they should devote their energies to ensuring that this is the kind of election in which the Pakistani people can have confidence,” McCormack added.
The United States is Musharraf’s principal foreign supporter because of his role in the war against terror. But U.S. diplomats have expressed concern that growing public resentment of Musharraf threatens to tarnish America’s image in Pakistan.
A survey released this week by the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute said half the Pakistanis polled planned to vote for Bhutto’s party and 22 percent backed another the group led by Sharif. Only 14 percent favored the ruling PML-Q.
The poll of 3,845 adults was conducted Jan. 19-29 and has a margin of error of plus or minus about 2 percentage points.
“I would like to say to all these foreign organizations especially, those who are conducting all these surveys, don’t disturb the peace of this country, don’t disturb the peace of this region,” Musharraf said. “You are playing with the peace of the world.”
Pakistan, a country of 160 million, faces a major challenge by Islamic extremism, especially in northwest regions bordering Afghanistan. The Dec. 27 assassination of Bhutto and a string of suicide bombings, some targeting campaign rallies, have been blamed on al-Qaida- or Taliban-linked militants.
Musharraf cited terrorism fears when he purged the judiciary, muzzled the press, and imposed a six-week state of emergency late last year. Critics said the steps were aimed at securing his rule.
Fear of violence has discouraged many candidates from holding large rallies, especially in the northwest where Taliban militants operate. Candidates have resorted to door-to-door campaigning to drum up support or hanging banners along roadsides, though momentum has picked up in recent days.
Thousands turned out Thursday in the eastern city of Faisalabad to hear Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari appeal for votes for the Pakistan People’s Party. Armed police and bodyguards ringed the stage, and snipers stood on rooftops.
A flak jacket appeared to bulge through Zardari’s shawl as he told the crowd the party would keep up the fight against dictatorship.
“Our mission will continue until they kill me and kill you and every party worker at every house,” he said from behind bulletproof glass.Top