Pakistan Leader Pledges Fair Elections
The Associated Press
By Robin McDowell

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — President Pervez Musharraf pledged Thursday that next week’s elections would be free, fair and on time, after political opponents accused him of planning to rig the vote so he could maintain his grip on power.

The retired general, in a televised speech four days before the crucial balloting, also said he was a firm believer in democracy but not if it turned Pakistan into a failed state.

Musharraf’s presidency is not being contested in Monday’s parliamentary election. But a convincing win by the opposition as forecast in recent opinion polls could leave him vulnerable to impeachment, eight years after he seized power in a bloodless coup.

That has sparked rumors the government may seek an excuse to delay or manipulate the vote.

“Despite all rumors, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful,” Musharraf told a gathering of intellectuals in the capital, Islamabad. “There will not be any change in the election schedule.”

There are also security fears as the country grapples with rising Islamic extremism, especially in northwest regions bordering Afghanistan. The Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and a string of suicide bombings, some targeting campaign rallies, have been blamed on Islamic militants.

A bombing Thursday on a military convoy also left three soldiers dead.

Musharraf cited terrorism fears when he purged the judiciary and imposed a six-month state of emergency late last year, but critics accused him of trying to silence his opponents.

“I definitely believe in democracy,” Musharraf said Thursday. “But not if it leads to the country being declared a failed state.”

“We have to tailor that democracy in accordance without own environment.”

Security concerns have cast a shadow on campaigning.

Candidates have largely abstained from staging massive rallies, instead going door-to-door 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 Faisalamabad to hear Asif Ali Zardari, who took over the Pakistan People’s Party after Bhutto, his wife, was killed. Armed police and bodyguards rung the stage, and snipers stood on rooftops.

He told the crowd the party would not stop fighting against dictatorship.

“Our mission will continue until they kill me and kill you and every party worker at every house,” Zardari told supporters, from behind a sheet of bulletproof glass.

Ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a leading opposition politician, was among those accusing Musharraf of planning to manipulate the polls.

“We stand for democracy. He stands for dictatorship,” Sharif said as he traveled in his armor-plated SUV to a raucous campaign rally on Wednesday attended by about 7,000 supporters in the northern town of Kahuta. “In order to survive, he has to rig the election. He knows that.”

He accused the government of buying votes and readying 1.8 million postal ballots to be cast in favor of the ruling party allegations denied by officials and warned that efforts to cheat would lead to “uncontrollable” unrest.

Opposition parties have threatened to launch street protests if they think the election was rigged something Musharraf said Thursday he would not tolerate. He also warned the media not to prejudice the results through their reporting.

“We don’t know who is going to lose and who is going to win,” he said, adding “there will be no rigging”

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, 22 percent backed Sharif’s group and 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.

Musharraf questioned the authenticity of such surveys and criticized those carrying them out, saying “don’t create problems for us.”

The bomb Thursday struck near a military convoy heading from a post along the Afghan border to Khar, the main town in the Bajur tribal area, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said. Three soldiers were killed, he said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Kahuta and Stephen Graham in Faisalamabad contributed to this report.

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