ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — With less than a month to go before parliamentary elections in Pakistan, independent experts say that there is little chance the polls will be either free or fair — and that the result could be renewed tumult across the country.
In ways both large and small, observers say, Pakistan’s government has already tilted the balance in favor of parties loyal to the nation’s deeply unpopular president, Pervez Musharraf.
Journalists operate under severe new restrictions, Supreme Court judges who previously challenged Musharraf are off the bench, and presidential loyalists occupy top election-oversight jobs. Experts also consider the voting process to be highly susceptible to fraud.
“The die has already been cast against the opposition,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the nonprofit Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. “The elections are going to be rigged. The only thing that remains to be seen is how extensive that rigging will be.”
Mehboob and others warned about the consequences of any rigging. “A rigged election would push Pakistan toward chaos,” said Zafarullah Khan, executive director of Pakistan’s Center for Civic Education.
The major opposition parties, which considered and rejected the idea of boycotting the elections, are already looking beyond the Jan. 8 vote to Jan. 9. That, they say, is when they intend to take to the streets in protest if they feel they have been cheated at the polls.
“We’re wishing for free and fair elections. But if not, we’ll start the movement to dethrone Musharraf,” said Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
A protracted street battle for control of Pakistan is just the sort of scenario the United States is hoping can be avoided. Washington has pushed hard for opposition parties to participate in the elections, believing that they can be a healing force in Pakistan after months of political uncertainty and protests.
Last week, Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher told a congressional panel that, while the elections would not be perfect, “they can have a good election. They can have a credible election. They can have a transparent election and a fair election.”
But few in Pakistan share that optimism, apart from Musharraf. The president on Sunday went so far as to guarantee free and fair elections. He accused the opposition of crying foul before a single ballot had been cast.
“We haven’t even gone for elections and they are talking of rigging and everything,” the former army general said in an interview broadcast on CNN. “This is a clear indication of their preparation for defeat. Now when they lose, they’ll have a good rationale, that it is all rigged, it is all fraud. In Pakistan, the loser always cries, and that is an unfortunate part.”
While the elections are for Parliament, not for president, the stakes for Musharraf are high: Opposition parties have vowed to seek his impeachment if they gain enough seats. Some of Musharraf’s leading critics want to restore the Supreme Court judges that he fired, then charge him with treason for his decision last month to suspend the constitution and declare emergency rule. In Pakistan, the penalty for treason is death.
Given all of that, Mehboob said, Musharraf “has every incentive to rig.”
There is evidence that Musharraf’s backers — they have controlled Parliament since winning power in a discredited 2002 vote — would be swept from office in a fair election. A September opinion poll by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute found that just 21 percent of Pakistanis approved of Musharraf’s job performance. Just 16 percent said they intended to vote for Musharraf’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League.
But in Pakistan’s 60-year history, the will of the people has rarely had much bearing on who rules the country. Stealing elections is a virtual art form, and all of the major political players know exactly how it’s done.
There are many ways. The electoral rolls, for instance, are believed to be highly inaccurate, despite a multimillion-dollar effort to scrub them clean that was largely funded by Washington. As Sarwar Bari, who leads Pakistan’s nonprofit Free and Fair Elections Network, said: “There are a lot of fake names and dead people’s names on the rolls.”
Another potential source of fraud lies in the hands of the local officials who oversee the elections. The government has been transferring loyalists into key constituencies to make sure it has allies where they are needed most.
In Rawalpindi, the garrison city just south of Islamabad, the mustachioed face of former federal minister Sheikh Rashid gazes down from posters on virtually every lamppost. But one of Rashid’s opponents for Parliament, a pharmacist-turned-politician named Hanif Abbasi, has charged that city employees, rather than Rashid’s supporters, put up the posters.
The city’s mayor happens to be Rashid’s nephew, and Abbasi insists that Rashid uses the relationship to his advantage at every turn. Abbasi lodged a complaint with the election commission last week. “But I don’t expect anything,” he said. “All over the country, there are the same kinds of complaints.”
Rashid dismissed the accusation, saying it would be impossible for his nephew to use city resources to help his campaign because there are too many people watching. Other Musharraf loyalists, as well as some Western diplomats, have made similar arguments about the overall integrity of the elections, saying the process will be under such intense scrutiny that it will be tough to rig.
But an international elections expert in Pakistan, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, called that idea “a joke” because the people who are supposed to be scrutinizing the elections have been muzzled.
Since Musharraf packed the courts with loyalists, there are no independent judges to punish abuses. The top TV news station has been taken off the air; stations that continue to broadcast do so under a tough new media law that makes it a crime, punishable with prison, for anyone to criticize Musharraf on the air. The law will remain even after Musharraf lifts the emergency, which he is expected to do Saturday.
Meanwhile, the foreign presence in Pakistan is comparatively light: On election day, there will be, at most, a couple of hundred international observers in a country with tens of thousands of polling places.
“The eyes of the world will be on Pakistan,” the expert said. “But they won’t be in Pakistan.”
Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.Top