Opposition leader warns rigged election could tear Pakistan apart

 

Pakistan’s leading opposition politician accused President Pervez Musharraf of planning to rig next week’s elections, describing it as a move that could trigger uncontrollable unrest and tear the country apart.

Ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also told The Associated Press in an interview that US support for Musharraf was deepening anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and that only democratic rule could end rising Islamic militancy.


“We stand for democracy. He stands for dictatorship,” Sharif said as he traveled in his armor-plated SUV to a raucous campaign rally attended by about 7,000 supporters in the northern town of Kahuta, a hub of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. “In order to survive, he has to rig the election. He knows that.”

Musharraf maintains that he wants to oversee a transfer to full democracy. His presidency is not being contested when Pakistanis vote next Monday for a new Parliament. But a convincing opposition win - as forecast in recent polls - could leave him vulnerable to impeachment, eight years after he toppled Sharif in a military coup.

Sharif accused the government of buying votes and readying 1.8 million postal ballots to be cast in favour of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party - allegations denied by officials Ñ and warned that if the ruling party won, it would lead to “uncontrollable” unrest.

Sharif compared that prospect to the aftermath of disputed elections in 1970, which culminated in the creation of Bangladesh.

“We lost half of the country because of rigged elections ... If they are rigged again the implications will be grave. We don’t want this country to be torn to pieces,” he said.

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto have agreed to launch joint street protests if they deem the election to have been rigged. On Tuesday, opposition leaders signaled their intent to form a coalition government if they win a majority.

A survey released Monday by the US government-funded International Republican Institute said half the Pakistanis polled planned to vote for Bhutto’s party, 22 per cent backed Sharif’s group and only 14 percent favored the PML-Q.

The poll of 3,845 adults was conducted Jan. 19-29 and has a margin of error of plus or minus about 2 percentage points.

Bhutto and Sharif were once bitter rivals and there could yet be sticking points in any matchup. Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower and now People’s Party leader, has left open the possibility of working with Musharraf - something that Sharif said was out of the question.

“That means abandoning our course for democracy and joining hands with dictatorship. That would be a great tragedy for this country. We don’t want to do that,” Sharif said.


Sharif lamented how the wave of suicide bombings, which he described as “the fruits of Mr. Musharraf’s eight-year rule,” had cramped his political campaigning - which has been low-key by all parties since Bhutto died in a December 27 suicide attack after an election rally.

Sharif said he wanted to negotiate with militants rather than use military force to tackle the extremist violence sweeping across Pakistan from its borderlands near Afghanistan.

The former prime minister’s willingness to use peaceful means to quell the Taliban could ring alarm bells in Washington, which values Musharraf for his support in the war on terrorism and fighting Al Qaida.

Sharif said he wanted good relations with the United States if he came to power, but he was bluntly critical of President Bush’s policy toward Pakistan.

“The Bush administration’s approach to support one man and equate Musharraf with Pakistan is not being perceived well in this country. It has given rise to anti-American feelings,” he said.

Despite the Pakistani leader’s November 3 emergency declaration and sacking of the judiciary, “Bush still calls him a friend,” Sharif said. (AP)
 
 
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