Pakistanis vote amid rigging fears
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Polls have closed in an election that could decide the fate of Pakistan's President Musharraf. The vote count is under way with international observers watching for any signs of fraud. (Report: A.Roy/M.Amellal)
Feb. 18 - Polling stations across Pakistan have closed after people voted in the much-awaited parliamentary election. The election comes as President Musharraf's ratings have been hitting all-time lows.
Officials at certain polling stations said the turnout was lower than expected. The run-up to the election had been marred by violence; notably the Dec. 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, one of Musharraf's key political opponents.
At least 80,000 troops have been deployed across the country to provide security for the election.
“The army is patrolling around polling stations but, more than violence, people are afraid of massive fraud,” says Philippe Lavasseur, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
After the vote closed, EU observers at some polling stations told Lavasseur they were skeptical of the transparency of the vote.
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.”
President Musharraf called for national reconciliation on Monday as he cast his ballot in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.
"Whosoever wins the polls, as president of Pakistan I will function with them in a totally harmonious manner," Musharraf told state television.
Pre-election polls suggested 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.
Originally scheduled for January 2008, the election was postponed until February 2008 following Bhutto's assassination.
A ‘united opposition’ up in arms
The Pakistani opposition has been rallying support to oust 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 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 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,” Farzana Raja, spokesperson for the Pakistan People's Party told FRANCE 24. “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.
Very few international election observers, mostly EU observers, have been allowed to visit polling stations.
“European observers are inside polling stations in Islamabad, but they will not be going everywhere inside the country – not to tribal areas for instance, and there anything can happen”, says Lavasseur.
Bangladesh and Nepal, countries with poor democratic track record, are the only members from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to have been allowed to send observers. Indian and Sri Lankan officials were denied visas.
The opposition’s biggest fear is widespread rigging.
“The election has already been rigged,” Raja, a PPP spokesperson told FRANCE 24 before the election. “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.”
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