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Will Pakistani Elections be Free, Fair?


Pakistan's deposed chief justice has called on Western leaders to stop backing President Pervez Musharraf, accusing the Pakistani leader of detaining him and his family in dire conditions. Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said in a statement that his family has been under house arrest since President Musharraf sacked him in November.

The statement by Iftikhar Muhammad, smuggled out and released by lawyers, was described as an open letter to Western leaders. It follows President Musharraf's visit to several European countries where he assured the international community about restoring democracy in his country. But some U.S. lawmakers and experts in Washington have raised doubts about the process. VOA's Ravi Khanna has more.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf continues to assure the international community that parliamentary elections will be held on February 18th and that they will be free and fair. He was in London earlier this week (January 28th) and said, "I did inform the prime minster (of) our strong desire to go forward with the elections and to ensure that the election will be free, fair and transparent. That is what our resolve is and we will have the elections on 18 February."

But long-time observers of the Pakistani scene and some U.S. lawmakers in Washington believe otherwise. They point to the government's move to restrict opposition rallies and to the strict code of conduct imposed on the Pakistani media as factors undercutting a free election.

Daniel Markey of the Council for Foreign Relations is not optimistic. "There are obvious controls on the media, the code of conduct, there are clear barriers to participation by the political parties, of course the most obvious one is that the judiciary has been severely restrained after November third," he said.

On that day President Musharraf imposed emergency rule and replaced the judiciary with pro-government judges.

The resulting political unrest and the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto have created a dangerous and uncertain environment for holding elections, according to Markey.

"Unfortunately, in this election in Pakistan it appears that the terrorists and the militants get to vote," says, Daniel Markey. "But their vote is not at the ballot box, their vote is through violence. It is pretty easy to imagine that you could see another spectacular attack that would throw the elections back into question. I very much hope this is not true but we have to be realistic here that it is a possibility."

But U.S. officials are more optimistic. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told a Congressional panel [the House National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee] this week any attempt at vote rigging will be difficult to hide. "Even with the restrictions that exist, which we think should be lifted, there is going to be a lot of reporting. There are going to be an enormous number of observers around. The political parties are well organized and they will cry foul if any fouls exist," he said.

But Walter Andersen of Johns Hopkins University says even if the parties cry foul, the problem will have to be resolved by the election commission or the judiciary, both of which are seen as pro-government. "And then you have an election commission, which is also stacked with supporters of the government. So the chances of having a fair judicial review of cases [election related disputes] are certainly questionable."

Also, lawyers in Pakistan have been protesting every day in recent weeks to get independent judges appointed before the polls, saying elections under the pro-government judiciary would be considered a fraud.

But the Bush administration maintains the controversy can only be resolved with the help of the new government that will come to power after the elections.

However, Democratic Congressman Peter Welch from Vermont argues that even if the new parliament restores the judiciary, President Musharraf has the power to negate the action by dissolving the parliament. "There is an inherent conflict. On the one hand we believe in free and fair elections. On the other hand the person who is going to implement this has already sabotaged any possibility that the people who are going to vote can be confident that it is a free and fair election, or if it is he will be able to overturn the action of their vote by dissolving the parliament they elected."

Some U.S. lawmakers also raised doubts about the effectiveness of the foreign observers Pakistan has allowed into the country to monitor the election. They note that the observers will not be allowed to conduct exit polls and also their visas require them to leave the country just three days after the polls close.

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