Voters in Pakistan are preparing for parliamentary elections on 10 October, the first legislative election since General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup three years ago. The vote is meant to mark a handover from military to civilian rule. But human rights groups, opposition parties, and some Western diplomats say the military regime in Islamabad has done almost everything in its power to ensure a pro-Musharraf coalition government emerges.
Prague, 9 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The elections for Pakistan's lower house of parliament on 10 October are supposed to represent a key step toward democracy since General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup three years ago.
Musharraf himself is not facing an election test. In April, he extended his self-declared presidency for five years through a controversial referendum. The Supreme Court has backed Musharraf's presidency on condition that legislative elections are held this week.
But human rights groups, monitors, and some Western diplomats say Musharraf has done almost everything in his power to ensure that the government emerging from the vote is one that yields to the general's wishes.
In the months following the April referendum, Musharraf has awarded himself more powers and weakened his potential political rivals through a series of constitution-altering decrees.
Rather than trying to restore democracy, some Western monitors say they fear the ballot is more an attempt by the military regime to legitimize a permanent role for itself in a new political system.
Pakistani-based journalist Ahmed Rashid -- an internationally acclaimed author of books on political developments in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan -- says European diplomats have told him they do not expect to see any real handover of power as a result of the vote.
Writing in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" newspaper today, Rashid said the lack of public interest in the election campaign and an expected low voter turnout will bring little legitimacy or credibility to Musharraf's regime. Rashid also said many Pakistanis think the election is likely to create greater political instability in their country.
Other analysts agree, saying Musharraf's pre-election decrees have caused deep rifts between the military and political elite.
A leading human rights group in the country, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), is among the critics already casting doubt on the credibility of the vote. HRCP Chairman Afrasiyab Khattack told journalists in Islamabad yesterday that Musharraf's regime has "manipulated and vulgarized" the electoral process.
Khattack also released a report detailing HRCP investigations into scores of complaints about alleged pre-poll rigging. He said the findings suggest a coordinated scheme that mocks the basic principles of democracy and will have grave implications for the people of Pakistan in the long run.
Asma Jahangir, a former chairman of HRCP, said changes made to the constitution by Musharraf are clearly aimed at consolidating the army's power and changing election rules in order to keep his most popular political rivals out of power. "It is unfortunate that rigging is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan, but the blatant form it has taken this time in the run-up to the polls is virtually unprecedented."
One of Musharraf's decrees empowered him to oversee the government after the elections and to dismiss the elected parliament at will.
Another Musharraf decree, issued on 22 June, allows only university graduates to run for parliament -- essentially preventing many of his less-educated, populist political opponents from running for the legislature.
Former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto have been banned from the contest on grounds that they have been convicted on corruption charges by Pakistani courts.
Despite that ban, Sharif's faction of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) are still considered to be election front-runners.
But Jahangir said there are allegations that some popular candidates have been coerced by Musharraf's administration into joining a pro-Musharraf faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, known as the PML (Quaid-e-Azam). "The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan fears that the role of the administration could become even less savory on election day itself, with police reporting that they have instructions from above to disrupt camps set up by opposition parties for their voters."
For its part, the government in Islamabad has rejected the allegations of pre-poll rigging. Pakistan's Information Minister Nisar Memon has called the criticisms "an election gimmick."
Musharraf yesterday told the London-based Pakistani satellite channel ARY that he thinks the ballot will be "totally transparent and fair."
But he also warned that if future political leaders abuse their powers, there will be intervention by the National Security Council that he will chair.
Washington has supported Musharraf's regime since last year when, in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks, he agreed to cooperate with the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign.
That cooperation has included permission for U.S. military forces to base themselves in Pakistani territory as part of the campaign that ousted the Taliban regime from neighboring Afghanistan.
With the final campaign rallies being concluded today, election officials are preparing to compile a vote count that must, by law, be released by 12 October.
At stake are 342 seats in the lower house, or National Assembly, including 60 special seats that have been reserved for women and 10 for representatives of non-Muslim minorities.
Voting also will determine 728 seats in four provincial legislatures. An election for the upper house of parliament, the Senate, is scheduled for 12 November.
Altogether, candidates from 83 political parties and three main political alliances are contesting tomorrow's election.
The pro-Musharraf faction of the PML has earned the popular nickname of the "King's Party" because it is perceived as the main benefactor of Musharraf's decrees.
Sharif, the exiled former prime minister who was overthrown by Musharraf's coup in 1999, is not the only member of his PML-N faction to be banned from running for parliament. An electoral tribunal also has barred Sharif's wife and his brother.
In their places, Sharif's faction is being led by his former aide, Raja Zafar-ul-Haq. The party platform pledges to improve education, justice, security, and prosperity in the country. It also pledges to try to overturn Musharraf's constitutional amendments.
With the self-exiled former Prime Minister Bhutto also barred from taking part, the leading candidate from her PPP is Makhdoom Amin Fahim. The PPP manifesto calls for steps toward peace, freedom, and economic opportunity for ordinary Pakistanis.
Six hard-line Islamic groups that vow to make Pakistan a "true Islamic state" have joined forces in an alliance known as the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). That group opposes Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. Some of the groups in the alliance have had close links with the Taliban.
Another important political group in Pakistan is the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement, or MQM. It represents Urdu-speakers who have migrated to Pakistan from India since the time of partition in 1947. The MQM, led by Afaq Ahmed, is the most powerful political group in the port city of Karachi as well as other cities in the southern province of Sindh.
More women are candidates than in any previous Pakistani general election. At least 54 women are contesting general seats in the National Assembly, while some 200 are running for the reserved seats. Another 126 women are seeking a role in the provincial legislatures.
But there are concerns among women's rights groups about the decision of some tribal leaders in northwestern Pakistan to block women voters from the polls. Those tribal leaders have threatened to punish any women in their region who try to vote.
Every Pakistani citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. Election officials say some 72 million voters have registered. The last general elections in Pakistan were conducted in 1997.