Pakistan's Musharraf Sweeps Presidential Vote

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 7, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 6 -- Under fire for months, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf received the validation he was looking for Saturday when lawmakers overwhelmingly elected him to a new five-year term. But his political fortunes will remain in doubt for at least several more weeks as the Supreme Court considers whether he was eligible to run in the first place.

The vote in the national and provincial assemblies played out with little fanfare and no suspense. Only Musharraf's ruling coalition participated, with the opposition boycotting the vote to protest his decision to seek election by lame-duck assemblies while still serving as army chief.

In unofficial results, Musharraf received 98 percent of the nearly 700 ballots cast. But more than 40 percent of those who were eligible to vote refused to take part, dismissing the election as a farce.

"This is a sandblast-proof election, the only kind Musharraf could afford," said political analyst Ayaz Amir. "He must be thanking his stars that October 6th has come and the country has not shut down. The only fly in his ointment now is the Supreme Court."

The court ruled Friday that the election results cannot be finalized until judges decide whether the general should be disqualified because of his army job. As a result, uncertainty will linger into late October, or even November.

Still, Musharraf and his supporters on Saturday were able to claim victory -- at least for now. Musharraf shrugged off concerns about the credibility of the election.

"If the majority votes for something, it is the rule of the day. That's democracy. There's no problem," he said at a news conference. Musharraf said the vote represented a crucial step in the "transition back to an absolutely normal government system."

While Musharraf had been considered vulnerable after a botched attempt in March to fire the nation's chief justice, he managed to hold off a burgeoning anti-military, pro-democracy movement by dividing a poorly organized opposition. He took a hard line against several parties, arresting their leaders and breaking up their rallies. At the same time, he negotiated behind the scenes with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who heads the largest opposition party.

In the end, none of the opposition parties participated in Saturday's election. But Bhutto's party split with the other groups by choosing not to quit the assemblies entirely, and instead to simply walk out before the vote. That decision was the product of a deal with Musharraf that will allow Bhutto to return from exile on Oct. 18 without facing corruption charges.

With the opposition missing, those who were left at the National Assembly building in Islamabad on Saturday voted quietly. One by one, they walked to the front of the cavernous assembly hall to mark their ballots behind a curtain and then drop them in a plastic bin. The officials cheered and shouted pro-Musharraf slogans when the results were announced.

Outside, planned protests by the opposition parties failed to materialize, and Islamabad was largely calm.

The scene in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, was considerably more contentious. Hundreds of lawyers protested outside the assembly building, clashing with police who used baton charges and tear gas to disperse the crowd. The protesters set fire to a police vehicle after it ran over a lawyer's legs, and several other people were injured in the melee.

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