Desiring a Fair Vote, Doubting It Will Be

By Pamela Constable and Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 18, 2008

SIALKOT, Pakistan, Feb. 17 -- Many people in this gritty rural district of wheat fields and cinder-block factories believe one of the country's two main opposition parties deserves to win Monday's crucial voting for parliament. Yet they also believe the government will do everything it can to steal the election.

The word they use is "dhandali" -- rigging -- a wide-ranging practice that includes blatant acts such as stuffing ballot boxes and hiring thugs to intimidate voters at polling stations, as well as more subtle techniques such as extorting loyalty from public employees and using official vehicles and funds to promote pro-government candidates.

"We all want this election to be free and fair, but we won't believe it until the results are announced," said Mohammed Abbas, a businessman. "There is so much corruption, and you have to have official connections to get anything. Unless this system changes, no matter who we vote for, we will never have democracy in Pakistan."

Election officials have repeatedly pledged that the polling will be fair, but opposition leaders have filed hundreds of complaints about rigging. The government's credibility was further damaged Friday when the New York-based group Human Rights Watch released an audiotape on which, the group says, Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum seemed to say that the vote would be "massively" rigged.

Qayyum strongly denied that assertion at a news conference Sunday in Islamabad, the capital. He said the tape had been manufactured to "maliciously . . . malign" the government headed by President Pervez Musharraf just before the vote. "It is not my voice," he said, suggesting someone had imitated him or doctored another conversation.

Kanwar Dilshad, secretary general of the national election commission, also brushed off the allegation, calling the tape "part of the psychological warfare of elections." He said that more than 2,000 election observers had been accredited, and that "everything is done that needs to be done" to ensure a proper voting process.

The observers include three U.S. senators, John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). Jackson Lee said she was particularly worried about violence at the polls in light of a string of deadly bombings in the past week, including one Saturday at a campaign rally by the opposition Pakistan People's Party in northwest Pakistan that killed 60 people. On Sunday, there were two explosions in the southern city of Quetta, but no one was injured.

Retired Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the bombings were intended "just to create a sense of panic and insecurity for people so they won't come out and vote." Nevertheless, Cheema said that he expected a high turnout and that about 80,000 security personnel were being deployed to protect polling stations.

To people in Sialkot, and across Punjab province where more than half of the country's 90 million voters reside, the threat of terrorist attacks seems relatively remote. In contrast, concerns about rigging dominate every political conversation. Appointees from Musharraf's party, a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, control many local government posts.

Officials of the Pakistan People's Party, the most popular opposition group, said they had faced systematic rigging in the last National Assembly election in 2002. The officials said they expect more this time, because the outcome is crucial to the political survival of Musharraf, who was forced to step down as army chief in November after briefly imposing emergency rule.

"They are violating all the rules, starting construction projects that are announced by government candidates, sending in criminals to threaten and beat people up," said Ghulam Abbas, a Pakistan People's Party official and candidate from Sialkot.

"If this election is fair, they will not get a single seat," he said. "If it is not fair, the people are going to burst and the country will head toward anarchy."

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