Pakistan fears rigged elections – Sunday Business Post

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Pressure on Musharraf intensifies, as a poll shows 75 per cent of citizens want him to quit, writes Simon Roughneen.

As the people of Pakistan go to the polling stations tomorrow, there are fears that a fixed election could spark off violence and further unrest in the country.

With President Pervez Musharraf’s ratings bottoming out, it seems that only a fix could shore up the former army chief’s floundering premiership after the parliamentary elections. But such a move could result in an outbreak of violence in the country.

Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, sought to legitimise his rule with rigged 2002 parliamentary polls. He secured a new five-year term as president last year, so will not be taking part in the elections.

However, his party, the Pakistani Muslim League (PML-Q), is facing a hammering. It stands to shed sufficient seats to prevent a return of the pro-Pervez coalition, and 50 per cent-plus opposition control of parliament would suffice for rivals to depose Musharraf.

He retained the post in controversial circumstances last October, after suspending the constitution and dismissing the chief justice, undercutting a judicial challenge to his pending re-election.

A muzzled media, widespread disaffection with military rule and a mismanaged war-on-terror partnership with the US have all edged Pakistan close to civil unrest.

Benazir Bhutto’s violent death merely increased the popularity of the Pakistani People’s Party (PPP), bequeathed to her husband and son who are benefiting from a wave of sympathy.

Opinion polls show support for the PPP at around 50 per cent or even more. The Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN), the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, is polling above 20 per cent.

However, a flawed election could spark violence, with al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, led by young warlord Baitullah Mehsud, poised to capitalise.

In keeping with his hardball-softball dealing with militants, last week Musharraf inked a ceasefire, prompting western fears that the Taliban would have an unfettered run into Afghanistan.

The president wants a violence-free election, and has dispatched hundreds of thousands troops to Pakistan’s 64,000 polling stations. But is it too little, too late?

Despite the vast bilateral aid given since 9/11,Washington has perhaps tired of its US$10 billion man in Islamabad. Last Monday, a public opinion survey result, released by the International Republic Institute (IRI) electoral monitoring body, caused waves.

Only 15 per cent of Pakistanis – of the circa 3,000 questioned – approve of Musharraf’s performance, and some 75 per cent want him to quit.

The main opposition parties, PML-N and the PPP, have the combined backing of 72 per cent of those surveyed. The poll’s timing – with IRI’s board featuring big-hitter Republicans such as Lawrence Eagleburger, Bush’s ex-Iraq tsar Paul Bremner and presidential frontrunner John McCain – may be an unsubtle White House warning against a rigged election.

But will Musharraf listen? He could lose more than an election: a hostile national parliament would be a serious challenge to his authority, and a two-thirds opposition majority would suffice to impeach the president – payback for his increasingly dictatorial behaviour over the past year.

Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who now leads the PPP, and Nawaz Sharif, met last Wednesday and announced plans to form a coalition government if they won a majority of seats. This could spell disaster for Musharraf.

Ultimately, it will be the army that decides if Pakistan has clean elections. Before assassination, Bhutto discussed with US embassy officials a 160-page PPP dossier on army poll-rigging plans. Since her death, the omnipotent securocrats, now bossed by General Ashfaq Kayani, claim to have stepped back from politics, apparently leaving Musharraf in isolation.

Perhaps it is all a bluff. However, with Musharraf now so reviled, a successful election outcome for him will be seen as fraudulent by Pakistanis, perhaps the spark for trouble.

Simon Roughneen reported from Pakistan in 2005/6 and worked in Kashmir with the charity Goal

Pakistan – an economic overview
Pakistan, with a population of almost 165 million, is an impoverished and underdeveloped country.

It has suffered from decades of internal political disputes, low levels of foreign investment and a costly, ongoing confrontation with neighbouring India.

However, it has seen a recent macroeconomic recovery as a result of IMF-approved government policies, bolstered by generous foreign assistance and renewed access to global markets since 2001.

Poverty levels have decreased by 10 per cent since 2001, and GDP growth was in the 6-8 per cent range from 2004 through 2007.

Inflation remains the biggest threat to the economy, jumping to more than 9 per cent in 2005 before easing to 6.9 per cent last year.

The central bank is pursuing a tighter monetary policy while trying to preserve growth. Foreign exchange reserves are bolstered by steady worker remittances, but a growing current account deficit – driven by a widening trade gap, as import growth outstrips export expansion – could reduce reserves and dampen GDP growth in the medium term.

Source: CIA – The World Factbook

Symbols
With more than half of Pakistan’s 80 million voters unable to read, each party is using a symbol to represent it on the ballot papers in tomorrow’s election contest.

Some of the symbols chosen are cricket bats, cows and camels – with the arrow, bicycle and tiger representing the big three – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), and the Pakistan Muslim League (N).

Almost 50 party symbols have been officially endorsed by the Pakistan Election Commission – the majority of which are uncontentious symbols of household objects or animals.

© The Sunday Business Post, 2005, Thomas Crosbie Media TCH

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