KAHUTA, Pakistan (AP) — A leading opposition politician on Wednesday accused President Pervez Musharraf of planning to rig next week’s elections, describing it as a move that could trigger uncontrollable unrest and tear Pakistan apart.
Ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also told The Associated Press in an interview that U.S. support for Musharraf was deepening anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and that only democratic rule could end rising Islamic militancy.
“We stand for democracy. He stands for dictatorship,” Sharif said as he traveled in his armor-plated SUV to a raucous campaign rally attended by about 7,000 supporters in the northern town of Kahuta, a hub of Pakistan’s nuclear program. “In order to survive, he has to rig the election. He knows that.”
Musharraf maintains that he wants to oversee a transfer to full democracy. His presidency is not being contested when Pakistanis vote next Monday for a new Parliament. But a convincing opposition win — as forecast in recent polls — could leave him vulnerable to impeachment, eight years after he toppled Sharif in a military coup.
Sharif accused the government of buying votes and readying 1.8 million postal ballots to be cast in favor of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party — allegations denied by officials — and warned that if the ruling party won, it would lead to “uncontrollable” unrest.
Sharif compared that prospect to the aftermath of disputed elections in 1970, which culminated in the creation of Bangladesh.
“We lost half of the country because of rigged elections … If they are rigged again the implications will be grave. We don’t want this country to be torn to pieces,” he said.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto have agreed to launch joint street protests if they deem the election to have been rigged. On Tuesday, opposition leaders signaled their intent to form a coalition government if they win a majority.
A survey released Monday 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 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.
Bhutto and Sharif were once bitter rivals and there could yet be sticking points in any matchup. Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower and now People’s Party leader, has left open the possibility of working with Musharraf — something that Sharif said was out of the question.
“That means abandoning our course for democracy and joining hands with dictatorship. That would be a great tragedy for this country. We don’t want to do that,” Sharif said.
Campaigning through his native Punjab — a province accounting for over half of parliamentary seats — Sharif drew packed grounds at two venues. Police sharpshooters were positioned on rooftops and flak-jacketed commandos stood sentry in front of the stages from which he spoke.
Sharif lamented how the wave of suicide bombings, which he described as “the fruits of Mr. Musharraf’s eight-year rule,” had cramped his political campaigning — which has been low-key by all parties since Bhutto died in a Dec. 27 suicide attack after an election rally.
Sharif’s green SUV, escorted by several pickup trucks of armed police in a quick-moving convoy, slowed but never stopped as crowds of party supporters gathered on his route, waving flags carrying his party’s tiger logo and letting off booming firecrackers.
On Wednesday a roadside bomb exploded as a crowd was leaving a rally held by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, an Islamist group, in the northwestern Swat Valley where the army has been fighting Taliban militants. One man was killed and three others were wounded, including the candidate, the Interior Ministry said.
Sharif said he wanted to negotiate with militants rather than use military force to tackle the extremist violence sweeping across Pakistan from its borderlands near Afghanistan.
“We need to engage all the elements who in our opinion should be engaged. We have done it in the past. We must try to win them over and I think we can do that without using any military,” he said.
The former prime minister’s willingness to use peaceful means to quell the Taliban could ring alarm bells in Washington, which values Musharraf for his support in the war on terrorism and fighting al-Qaida.
Sharif said he wanted good relations with the United States if he came to power, but he was bluntly critical of President Bush’s policy toward Pakistan.
“The Bush administration’s approach to support one man and equate Musharraf with Pakistan is not being perceived well in this country. It has given rise to anti-American feelings,” he said.
Despite the Pakistani leader’s Nov. 3 emergency declaration and sacking of the judiciary, “Bush still calls him a friend,” Sharif said.