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Pakistan Election Campaign Dominated by Charges of Government Manipulation of Process

In Pakistan, parliamentary elections are coming up next week, but most parties contesting the polls have focused their attention almost entirely on accusing the military government of manipulating the electoral process.

The government of President Pervez Musharraf is holding the October 10 elections under new laws, which exclude some of the country's top politicians from running. Two popular former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, have been the most directly affected.

Ms. Bhutto has been threatened with jail if she returns to Pakistan. She has been convicted in absentia for failing to appear in a court to answer corruption charges. Mr. Sharif, who was ousted in 1999 and now lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, has withdrawn from the race saying the election process is a sham.

The secretary-general of Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, Reza Rabban, says the election laws are part of an effort by the government to rig the upcoming vote and this will not help establish a stable political system.

"If the election results are gerrymandered [manipulated], if the election results are rigged, then of course there would be political instability again because the new government would lack the mandate of the people," said Mr. Rabban. "Even a hand picked government, a sham parliament would not stand up to be browbeaten to the extent that it is being done under the LFO [the constitutional amendments]. So I think an internal tension within Parliament would also be taking place."

The political party of former Prime Minister Sharif says President Musharraf is rigging the elections to ensure what it calls a "compliant parliament."

Imran Khan heads the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (movement for justice) Party. The cricket hero-turned-politician alleges that a massive official effort has been made to tilt the elections in favor of what has become known as the "king's Party."

"The administration literally has manufactured the king's party and is constantly helping them," said Mr. Khan. "The local mayors of the districts, who are supposed to be impartial, they have been conducting campaigns for the King's party candidates in gross violations of all the laws made by the Elections Commission."

President Musharraf's government dismisses the accusations as baseless. "It is ridiculous for anyone to say such things because government or President Musharraf has not only announced but made sure that there is an independent Election Commission, that the courts are free," stressed Pakistani Information Minister Nisar Memon. "If there is any grievance by anyone they can go there. We are inviting observers from the world that they should come here and see for themselves the day of elections how the elections are held and how free, fair and transparent they are."

Political parties are not alone in making accusations of pre-poll rigging. Most analysts are also skeptical about the electoral process.

"The way things are happening and certain exclusionary regulations affected the leaders of two main political parties," said Zafarrullah Khan, a member of Pakistan's Liberal Forum, an independent group for political education. "That gave an opportunity to those two political parties to scandalize the whole situation."

President Musharraf says Pakistan's past political governments have misruled the country and mismanaged the economy. He says he is trying to build a new political order to rid the society of corruption. But most Pakistanis are not convinced. Instead many see a military dictator cementing his hold on power.

The elections are just more than a week away, but the streets of Pakistan remain quiet. Mr. Khan of Pakistan's Liberal Forum says absence of political leaders like Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif from the elections and government restrictions on where political parties can hold rallies could be the reasons for the lack of interest.

"It is lackluster because of new regulations, which are a total departure from the traditional means of political communication in Pakistan," said Mr. Khan. "So that's why you don't find so many rallies, big public processions on the roads and that in a way epitomizes lack of enthusiasm and euphoria. So in absence of major protagonists of political drama, we are witnessing a very less enthusiasm. And when campaign is not in its full swing then the best thing is to do media trial of each other. That's what we are finding - a lot of claims and counter claims."

Earlier this month, a U.S. based pro-democracy group said it was concerned the elections in Pakistan will not allow the full participation of Pakistanis. Among the problems the Washington-based National Democratic Institute cites, a government rule that bars candidates who do not hold university degrees. This condition prevents 90 percent of the population and about 30 percent of former lawmakers from running in the elections.