Pakistani Electoral Process in Disarray, Observers Warn

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 24, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- With their country in turmoil, Pakistani voters are expected within months to go to the polls for the first parliamentary elections here in five years. But as time runs short, independent observers say that the nation is poorly prepared and that the elections will be highly vulnerable to fraud.

The most glaring weakness, they say, is a new voter list that is missing the names of tens of millions of Pakistanis, threatening to seed mass confusion over who is eligible to cast a ballot.

Creation of the list was heavily funded by Washington. It was to be the signature U.S. contribution to the election process.

"The very hard-earned money of U.S. taxpayers was used for this. But that money was not well spent," said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the nonprofit Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. "This could severely jeopardize the quality of the elections."

Last month, Pakistan's Supreme Court agreed, ordering the Election Commission to go back and try to identify the missing names so they could be added to the rolls. But those involved say that the fix could do more damage and that the result could be a free-for-all, with the various political parties competing to rig the polls.

"The door is now open to the same kind of fraudulent voting as we've had in the past," said one international elections expert in Pakistan who was not permitted to speak for the record. "It's unfortunate because all of it could have been avoided."

Observers generally do not blame the United States for the failure. But they say U.S. officials erred in trusting the Election Commission of Pakistan, the organization responsible for implementing the upgrade. The commission, whose members are handpicked by President Pervez Musharraf, has a reputation for incompetence and for lacking independence from the president. The commission has enabled Musharraf to go ahead with his plans for reelection in the face of several legal challenges.

Musharraf, a general who seized power in a 1999 coup, is seeking another five years as president through a vote to be held before the national elections. That vote, scheduled for Oct. 6, will be conducted by the outgoing Parliament and provincial assemblies, which were themselves elected in flawed balloting that favored Musharraf. The president's critics say the sequencing of the elections is inherently unfair.

Still, the stakes in the voting for Parliament are high. The outcome will determine who becomes Pakistan's prime minister, the official with day-to-day control of the government. Even if Musharraf wins a new term as president, his authority could be seriously eroded if his party receives scant public support.

Meanwhile, a recent International Crisis Group report said "rigged or stalled elections would destabilize Pakistan, with serious international security consequences."

The U.S. budget for election assistance in Pakistan is $28 million. In July, Richard A. Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South Asia, told Congress that $20 million had gone toward supporting the Election Commission's work and that U.S. officials were "doing everything we can to support free and fair elections."

The single largest contribution to that effort has been the $10 million the United States spent on computerizing the new voter rolls, a program that officials broadly defend, while acknowledging problems.

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