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Pakistan Opposition Faces Hurdles

Campaign: On the eve of voting, parties accuse president of trying to keep them out of the race, sometimes by pressure to switch sides.


LARKANA, Pakistan — Nisar Khuhro spent the first 23 days of his election campaign in various courts, fighting an order barring him from seeking office because his daughter had defaulted on a bank loan.

As Khuhro, head of the Pakistan People's Party in Sindh province, battled that ban, the opposition group's national leader and two-time former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, faced a similar fight: She had been ordered disqualified from running Thursday because she had failed to appear in an anti-corruption court.

And yet Azam Tariq, leader of an extremist group outlawed by President Pervez Musharraf, has been allowed to stand for election to the National Assembly from jail. A pro-Musharraf candidate even pulled out of the race to support the extremist leader, who is running as an independent and whose group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, is blamed for killing hundreds of minority Shiite Muslims in bombings, shootings and grenade attacks.

"These are very sensitive matters, so they would not be left to lower-level officials," said Afrasiab Khattak, who heads the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "There has to be a policy from above."

As Pakistan prepares for Thursday's general election--the first since Musharraf's October 1999 coup--opposition groups accuse his government of trying to keep them from running, pressuring their candidates to switch sides and otherwise manipulating the process.

"Musharraf feels that he can get away with anything and everything," said Mian Raza Rabbani, acting secretary-general of Bhutto's party. "And I think he is pandering to the right-wing, [Islamic] fundamentalist lobby as well."

Opposition leaders claim Musharraf is using the military's Inter-Services Intelligence agency to intimidate candidates.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League says it couldn't field candidates in several districts because they were coerced by ISI agents into joining the pro-Musharraf PML-Q, nicknamed "the king's party" by its opponents. League chairman Raja Zafar ul-Haq said many PML-Q converts were threatened with corruption charges.

In Punjab province, Rabbani said, the ISI persuaded at least 21 of his party's candidates to defect to a pro-Musharraf party.

Sadiq Umrani, a provincial assembly candidate in Baluchistan, is a typical case of a politician pressured by an ISI agent, said Rabbani, a former federal law minister.

"He was initially told, 'It will be better for you if you stay away from the People's Party,' " Rabbani said. "When he refused, he got a notice from the [anti-corruption] National Accountability Bureau, which ordered him to appear in front of an investigating officer.

"They didn't specify any evidence, but when he went to the investigating officer, he made the most common of charges: 'You are living beyond your means,' " Rabbani said. Umrani fought and managed to stay in the race as a People's Party candidate.

Musharraf, who will remain president after the vote, has repeatedly rejected allegations that he is manipulating the election in an effort to ensure the vote produces a compliant government. He insists he is only reforming a corrupt system, so that a new generation of politicians will serve the interests of the people--and not themselves.

"I am confident that, as a result of the forthcoming elections, a new political culture of tolerance, accommodation and responsibility will emerge, replacing the culture of complete political polarization and conflict we witnessed in the past decade," Musharraf said Saturday in the capital, Islamabad.

Musharraf, who is also the military's commanding general, promised that the newly elected prime minister "will be fully in charge and empowered to govern the country."

Pakistanis have traditionally been passionate about their politics, and in previous elections, rallies drew huge crowds. But this campaign hasn't stirred much excitement. Musharraf's opponents say that's exactly how he planned it, promoting minor parties and trying to neutralize several major ones that have dominated Pakistan for generations.

The country's three biggest political names remain in exile.

Bhutto, who now lives in London, threatened to return to Pakistan but backed down after failing to get her name on the ballot.

Sharif, who lives in Saudi Arabia, was allowed to run, despite a conviction on corruption and treason charges, because Musharraf pardoned him. But he withdrew from the race in September to protest the ban on Bhutto.

And Altaf Hussain, who leads the Muttahida Quami Movement, also remains in London since fleeing Pakistan to avoid arrest in the early 1990s. His political base is refugees from the 1947 partition of India and their descendants. His party wants more autonomy for Sindh province.

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