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Pakistan Election Held Amid Violence - 2002-10-10

At least three people were killed and several dozen injured in election-related violence as voters in Pakistan chose national and provincial assembly members.

Most major cities reported a light to moderate turnout among Pakistan's 72 million eligible voters. The turnout underscores the lukewarm interest in an election that will install a civilian government, but leave the military controlling the levers of real power.

At stake are 272 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly. The remaining seats are set aside for women and minorities.

Voting came at the end of a largely issue-less campaign that focused primarily on the one figure who has never won office in an election, President Pervez Musharaff.

Mr. Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, was not on the ballot. But the vote pitted Musharraf loyalists against the parties of two deposed prime ministers and a coalition of religion-based parties.

The chief contenders are the pro-Musharaff faction of the Muslim League; the PMLN, another Muslim League faction loyal to ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples' Party of another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

A coalition of Islamic religious parties also fielded candidates, hoping to capitalize on anti-Western sentiment fanned by Mr. Musharraf's assistance to the U.S.-led anti-terrorism effort.

Mr. Sharif and Ms. Bhutto, both convicted of corruptionrelated charges - were barred by Mr. Musharaff from contesting the polls, and remain in exile.

There were widespread complaints of pre-election manipulation and intimidation by the Musharraf government. Afrasiab Khattak, chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan complained about the alleged abuses.

"The blatant manner in which the electoral process is being vulgarized and the will of the people mocked is extremely worrying," he said. "It is clear that the scheme being implemented will have grave implications for the state and will create unimaginable hardship for the people."

Nisar Ali, the minister for petroleum in the Sharif government and an opposition candidate for the National Assembly, says pro-Musharraf candidates received extra help from the government. But, in a roadside interview in Rawalpindi, Mr. Ali, who has known Mr. Musharraf for 23 years, says a fair result is possible if there is no attempt to manipulate the vote count.

"I still feel that the mainstream political parties, which are PMLN and the Peoples' Party, can carry the day today, provided the polling booths are not manipulated and particularly if the [ballot] boxes are not stuffed. That is our main fear," he said.

Mr. Musharraf dismisses the allegations of rigging. Speaking at a polling station in Rawalpindi, he promises a free and fair poll and pledges to hand over executive power to the new prime minister and government.

"We have worked out everything [about] when we will hand over chief executive power to the new prime minister," he said.

But it remains to be seen if that will mean any real change. As president and chief of the armed forces, Mr. Musharraf holds onto the power to dismiss elected governments, and has pledged to do so if a new government reverts to the corrupt practices of the past.