Vote rigging fears mar hope for change

Pakistan’s general elections on Feb. 18 could oust President Musharraf and his allies, leading to an important shift in balance of power. But widespread vote rigging may jeopardize this “transparent election.”


Pakistan heads to the polls on Feb. 18 for its much-awaited parliamentary election as President Musharraf's ratings dive to all-time lows.

The election, the first since 2002, could change Pakistan’s leadership and restore democracy after nearly a decade of military rule.

“This is the first opportunity in many years for change in the Pakistani parliament and could lead to an important shift in the balance of power,” says analyst Zia Mian from the US-based Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International affairs. “It is widely anticipated that President Musharraf and his allies will do badly this time.”

Pre-election polls suggest that Musharraf’s party would receive as little as 14% of the vote, meaning the new parliament would be dominated by opposition parties who might call for Musharraf to step down. In Pakistan, presidents are elected by the parliament, not by direct popular vote.

Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999. In 2002, a parliament was elected with Musharraf’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), winning a large majority. That same parliament reelected Musharraf as president in November 2007, but the country’s top judges were expected to invalidate his reelection on grounds it was not democratic. Musharraf then declared a state of emergency and sacked the judges.

But 49% of Pakistan’s population considers Musharraf’s November election invalid, according to a BBC World Service/Gallup Pakistan poll released on Feb. 14.

Pakistan has witnessed months of political turmoil largely due to growing opposition to Musharraf and out-of-control Islamic militancy.

President Musharraf has promised to hold a “transparent and safe election” but the run-up to the election has been marred by a wave of violence raising fears of a low turnout.

“People are scared to come out for public rallies, there is a constant threat of attacks and blasts,” Farzana Raja, a spokesperson for Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview.

Originally scheduled for January 2008, the election was postponed until February 2008 following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27 during an election rally in Rawalpindi.

A ‘united opposition’ up in arms

The Pakistani opposition has been rallying support to oust President Musharraf.

Leading opposition leaders Bhutto and former PM Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan in late 2007 after spending eight years in exile and vowed to rid Pakistan of “dictatorship.”

Almost seven weeks after Bhutto’s assassination, the main opposition parties have agreed to cooperate in order to prevent Musharraf and his allies from grabbing power from elected representatives.

Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in 1999, has repeatedly offered his party Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) support to slain opposition leader Bhutto’s party, the PPP, if it wins this election.

“Bhutto’s PPP and former PM Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N are willing to fight together against Musharraf’s rule,” says Mian. “They will try to create a democratic coalition to win the balance of power.”

Bhutto’s widower and PPP’s co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, who leads the  party into the Feb. 18 election, told reporters he is “willing to take along all democratic forces” if his party wins.

Zardari is the caretaker leader of the PPP until the couple's 19-year-old son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is ready to take over as party chairman.

“Mr. Zardari is willing to work with Nawaz Sharif,” Raja said. “But the decision to form a coalition will be taken after the election result. For now we’re concentrating on the election.”

Fears of ballot rigging

Pakistan’s electoral process has been widely criticised for favouring President Musharraf’s allies and hindering opposition leaders from coming to power.

The opposition’s biggest fear is widespread rigging.

PPP’s Zardari and Sharif have repeatedly expressed their reservations about rigging in the general elections.

“The election has already been rigged,” Raja, a PPP spokesperson told FRANCE 24. “Musharraf’s allies are involved in massive pre-poll rigging and government officials and  police officers in Punjab are helping them,” she said.

Raja accuses the Election Commission of turning a blind eye to arrests and harassment of opposition party members.

In a report released on Feb. 12, Human Rights Watch warned that “Pakistan’s Election Commission is not impartial.” The New York based human rights group says “The failure of Pakistan’s Election Commission to act on allegations of irregularities means the electoral machinery for national elections due on Feb. 18, 2008 cannot be considered impartial.”

According to an opinion poll released by the US-based International Republican Institute, 50% of participants intend to vote for the PPP, while 14 % support the pro-Musharraf PML-Q.

Many observers in Pakistan feel the PPP is benefitting from sympathy over Bhutto’s death and note that her husband and son’s leadership have yet to be tested.

Analysts say most of the current polls are correct in predicting that the opposition will win the election.

 “People in Pakistan are very angry with Musharraf,” says Mian. “If this election is rigged, people and the opposition will take to the streets and continue to challenge Musharraf’s authority and he may even be forced to step down as president.”

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