Pro-Musharraf party predicts it will win Pakistan elections
The Associated Press
By Munir Ahmad

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan’s ruling party expressed confidence Wednesday that it will form a new government after next week’s parliamentary elections, despite surveys pointing to a strong victory by President Pervez Musharraf’s opponents.

With only five days until the crucial balloting, violence continued.

A roadside bomb exploded Wednesday as a crowd was leaving a rally held by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, an Islamist group, in the town of Charbagh in the Swat Valley, policeman Noorul Haq said. Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said one man was killed and three others were injured, including the candidate.

Also Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry said it had no information on the fate of the country’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who disappeared two days ago as he was heading for the Afghan border en route to Kabul.

Mushahid Hussain, secretary-general of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q, said the party has improved education, health care and other public services during the last five years and is confident going into Monday’s balloting.

“Based on our performance, we are confident that we will win the elections,” Hussain told The Associated Press. “We are in favor of national reconciliation and would like to muster the support of all political forces after the elections to ensure good governance.” However, a survey released Monday by the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute showed overwhelming support for the opposition and predicted the ruling party would fare poorly.

The survey said half the Pakistanis polled planned to vote for the party of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and 22 percent backed a party headed by another ex-premier, Nawaz Sharif.

Only 14 percent of those surveyed favored the pro-Musharraf party, the survey said. Musharraf has been a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, and stability in Pakistan is a major American concern as U.S. troops battle militants in neighboring Afghanistan. Opposition optimism has been tempered by fears the government may try to rig the polls a chronic problem in Pakistani politics. Recently, opposition figures have cited alleged manipulation of voter registration rolls and other irregularities as a sign the vote may be rigged.

Government officials deny the allegations.

“If there is no poll day rigging, we still expect to win,” said the spokesman for Bhutto’s party, Farhatullah Babar. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N and Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party used to be bitter rivals but recently agreed to set aside their past differences, vowing to restore democracy.

Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and Sharif met late Tuesday in Lahore and afterward told reporters they would try to form a coalition government if they win a majority of the seats.

“We will sit together because the country is passing through a dangerous phase, and we can only steer the country out of this crisis together,” Zardari said. “I am conveying this message to the establishment that I will change this system.”

Sharif, who hosted the meeting at his home, said the political, social and economic crisis facing Pakistan had reached the point that “we all have to join hands and save the country from any further deterioration.”

The elections are aimed ushering in a new democratic era after years of military rule under Musharraf, who gave up his dual post as military commander two months ago to govern as a civilian.

Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup against Sharif and was re-elected by the former parliament to another five-year term in October. But he needs a strong majority in the new legislature to block any move to impeach him.

Opposition to Musharraf grew after his failed attempt last year to oust the Supreme Court’s chief justice, and the anger intensified when he imposed temporary emergency rule in November and removed Supreme Court judges seen as a challenge to his continued rule. The campaign is taking place against a backdrop of fear over militant violence as well as widespread cynicism over prospects for improvements in Pakistani life.

Security fears have prompted many candidates to limit campaigning since Bhutto was assassinated by a suicide bombing and gun attack after a political rally Dec. 27.

The military announced that tens of thousands of soldiers have been placed on alert to bolster security during the election. In Islamabad, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq told reporters that the government had no word on what happened to Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin. Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq also said the government had not been contacted by anyone claiming to be holding the diplomat.

“There is no news at this point,” Pakistani embassy spokesman Mohammad Naeem Khan said in Kabul. “We have not been contacted by anybody yet. We have not received any phone call from any side. Of course, we are very worried.”

Police were also looking for three employees of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission who disappeared Monday in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan, located in the lawless tribal region that borders Afghanistan.

Local police Chief Amir Hamza Mehsud said authorities were unsure whether the two technicians and their driver had been kidnapped. Also Wednesday, Pakistan’s military said it had successfully test-fired a short-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear device. The army’s Strategic Missile Group launched the Ghazanvi missile, which has a range of 290 kilometers (180 miles), from an undisclosed location, a statement said.

Pakistan became a declared nuclear power in 1998 by conducting nuclear tests in response to those carried out by neighboring India and test-firing its first missile the same year. Since then, the two countries have routinely tested their missiles, and Wednesday’s launch by Pakistan was the third in recent weeks.

Associated Press reporters Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad and Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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