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Pakistan's Parliamentary Elections to Be Held Amid Voter Apathy, Fraud Charges - 2002-10-09

In Pakistan, parliamentary elections are set for Thursday - the first since the military seized power in 1999. Voters, however, say they care little about the election, and critics accuse the government of widespread poll rigging to ensure victory for parties that support President Pervez Musharraf.

More than 70 parties have fielded candidates in Thursday's election for the national assembly and four provincial assemblies. But with some of the country's top politicians excluded, and public rallies strictly controlled, the elections have a lackluster air.

Widespread allegations that the military government is trying to rig the election in favor of what has become known as the King's party, have further subdued the campaign.

"The pre-poll rigging that has already taken place has tilted the balance to a great extent, not in people, but administratively in the favor of the King's party candidates," said Reza Rabbani, senior leader of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's political party. "Our candidates have been harassed, our candidates have been put under tremendous pressure." Human rights organizations at home and abroad accuse President Musharraf's government of using state machinery to rig the elections. Asma Jehangir is a senior member of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"It is unfortunate that rigging is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. But the blatant form it has taken this time in the run up to the polls, is virtually unprecedented," he said. " Military officers posted in various localities are in many cases said to be directing police and other officials in favor of chosen candidates. These realities only augur ill for the future of democracy in the country."

Nisar Memon, Pakistan's information minister, rejects the rigging allegations.

"This is all election gimmicks, because they probably are the people who think that they will not be able to achieve the mandate from the people of Pakistan," he said. "Therefore, they are putting up these allegations to later on justify their failure in the elections."

President Musharraf, an army general, changed the constitution to allow him to dismiss the prime minister and Parliament. New rules also disqualify any candidate who lacks a university degree - effectively barring 90 percent of Pakistanis from politics.

The president also has barred two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, from contesting the elections. And he gave himself another five years as president in a controversial referendum earlier this year.

President Musharraf says the new rules will rid the country of corrupt politicians. He dismisses suggestions that barring Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif undermines the election process.

"When somebody says there is no leadership, are there only two leaders left in Pakistan, the two previous prime ministers? … And moreover was that the kind of leadership that we require in this country, the same kind of governance, the same kind of loot and plunder?" he asked. " So there is no doubt in my mind new leadership will emerge and they could not be worse than the past. They will certainly be better than the past." Ms. Bhutto, who lives in exile overseas, is barred from running because she failed to appear in court on corruption charges. Mr. Sharif pulled out of the contest to protest the new rules for candidates. He lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Both Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif served two terms as prime ministers, and both were twice ousted under allegations of corruption and misrule.

Jameela Aslam, a resident of Islamabad, is like many Pakistanis, who do not expect the election to lead to better times.

"Our leaders, for them it is a business proposition - let us invest so much in the campaigning and tomorrow we will become a minister or we will be in power and we will double that money…. I am glad that nobody is taking interest in the elections," he said.

Nadeem Ahmed runs a printing press in the sprawling city of Rawalpindi. He says that restrictions on the campaigns hurt his business. Mr. Ahmed says most people are not excited about the elections because they have lost confidence in politicians and their bad economic policies. He says average Pakistanis are worried about economic and social problems rather than attending election rallies.

Nameeka Bhatti, a lawyer, says she will not vote on Thursday because the government that emerges after the elections will not be able to deliver on any promises.

"I don't think so that the coming parliament would be in position to do what they are promising to do. The prime minister, when he himself is not sure about his security, what to expect, that he is going to give something to the nation or not," she said. "And that's the only reason that people are not participating."

Observers say no party is expected to win an overall majority in Thursday's elections. Opinion polls predict Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Mr. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League will take the most seats. A faction of Mr. Sharif's party, which is seen as pro-government, is also among the frontrunners.