/ 16 February 2008

Pakistani politicians wind up election campaign

Pakistani politicians were winding up campaigns on Saturday for a general election that is meant to complete a transition to civilian rule but has been overshadowed by fear of violence and accusations of rigging.

The elections on Monday are for a new Parliament and provincial assemblies and while President Pervez Musharraf is not taking part, the vote could spell trouble for the important US ally if voters elect a parliament hostile to him.

The vote comes after a surge in violence that included the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on December 27, that raised fears about the nuclear-armed country’s stability.

But many Pakistanis are more concerned about rising prices and shortages of basic commodities such as wheat flour and ever more frequent power cuts.

Many are disillusioned with all politicians.

”It’ll be very difficult to change this country,” said Mohammad Abbas, who works in a rice shop in the town of Sabboki in Punjab province.

”Whatever the politicians do they do for themselves, not for change,” said Abbas, who said he would not be voting.

The elections come after months of political turmoil over the increasingly unpopular Musharraf’s efforts to stay in power.

Two-time prime minister Bhutto had been hoping to win when she was killed in a gun and bomb attack and her Pakistan People’s Party is expected to reap a considerable sympathy vote.

But neither it nor either of the other two main parties, the Pakistan Muslim League that backs Musharraf, and the party of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is expected to win a majority of seats in Parliament.

A coalition between two of the three main parties, looks likely, analysts say.

Campaigning ends at midnight on Saturday and Sunday is a cooling-off day.

Low turnout expected

The attack on Bhutto and other violence have unnerved both politicians and voters and turnout could be low, analysts say.

The government has deployed more than 80 000 troops for the vote and has declared 30% of the more than 64 000 polling stations ”sensitive” and 14% ”most sensitive”, including all 1 122 in the tribal belt on the Afghan border.

Police in the southern city of Hyderabad said they arrested three suspected suicide bombers on Saturday and seized 10kg of explosives and a suicide-bomb jacket ready for an attack.

”It seems they were planning to attack polling stations on election day,” said a police official, adding the three suspects were from the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border.

Militants blew up a polling centre in Khar, the main town in the Bajaur tribal region, on Friday night, police said. Militants also circulated notes warning people not to vote, residents said.

Opposition parties say Musharraf’s allies have been engaged in widespread pre-poll rigging.

Sharif and Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who is leading her party into the vote, have vowed streets protests if they are robbed of victory.

Musharraf rejects complaints of rigging and and says procedures have been refined to prevent cheating. He turned down demands to reconstitute a caretaker government set up in November and to disband district governments that the opposition says are dominated by Musharraf’s allies.

Musharraf said on Saturday he was positive the vote would be fair and peaceful and he hoped for a stable government.

”We will ensure a successful fight against terrorism and extremism and we will ensure sustaining economic growth,” the state news agency reported him saying.

The opposition says the Election Commission is subservient to the government and is failing to act on complaints but commission Secretary Kanwar Dilshad dismissed fears of rigging.

”For the first time we’re using transparent ballot boxes and also for the first time, a list of polling stations and computerised electoral lists are on a Web site,” he said.

Gallup Pakistan said it found that 51% of people surveyed doubted the elections would be free and fair.

Nearly 81-million people, about half the country’s population, are registered to vote. Several hundreds foreign observers will be monitoring but they have not been allowed to conduct exit polls. – Reuters