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Musharraf Warns Politicians

Asia: While promising to transfer power in today's election, the president also says he'll never give up the right to protect Pakistan.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Insisting he is putting power in the hands of the people, President Pervez Musharraf warned Wednesday that he would be closely watching politicians elected today to keep them honest and Pakistan stable.

Hours after the polls opened, turnout across the country was low.

Musharraf addressed the nation in his army general's uniform and dismissed charges of election rigging leveled by opposition parties and human rights activists. He promised a free and fair balloting that would help build "a sustainable democracy."

He also promised to transfer full executive powers to the new prime minister. However, he will remain president and commander of the armed forces.

"One power I shall always keep with me, and there shall be no compromise on it," said Musharraf, who sat between a bowl of roses and the flag of Pakistan. "That is the solidarity and survival of Pakistan, and running of government free from corruption and dishonesty. This shall be my demand on the future government."

In the first national election since Musharraf seized power three years ago, hundreds of candidates from more than 60 parties and alliances are competing for 342 seats in the National Assembly and for 728 seats in four provincial legislatures.

The main contest is between candidates of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and those of a pro-Musharraf faction that broke away from deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League.

Musharraf imposed decrees and a constitutional amendment to prevent Bhutto and Sharif from running in the election. Both exiled politicians threatened to return to Pakistan and campaign, but they later backed down.

Without the two most popular politicians to choose from, voters are left with lesser-knowns. That has quashed much of the hoopla that normally goes with Pakistani elections. If voter turnout is low, party organization could prove crucial as rivals struggle to get their supporters to the polls.

Only 34% of eligible voters cast ballots in 1997, during Pakistan's last general election, when Sharif won a second term as prime minister. India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons the following year, intensifying an arms race that has made South Asia one of the world's most dangerous tinderboxes.

The wild card in today's National Assembly elections is a loose alliance of six Islamic parties called the United Council of Action. It continues to back the Taliban, the regime in neighboring Afghanistan that was driven from power last fall by U.S.-led military forces.

The parties' main political power base is in ethnic Pushtun areas of northwestern Pakistan, where anger runs deep toward U.S. military and intelligence support for Pakistani security forces still searching for suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

With their narrow regional base, the religious parties have little chance of winning control of the National Assembly. However, they could end up sharing power in a coalition government if none of the mainstream parties wins a majority of seats.

Pakistan's military has close ties to Muslim militants, and Musharraf has been able to keep the parties' leaders in check since allying the nation with the U.S.-declared war against terrorism.

Musharraf's mainstream opponents say that, despite some high-profile arrests of Al Qaeda and other suspected terrorists sought by the U.S., the president has been soft on Islamic extremists to build support for his domestic political allies.

The religious right has demanded that Musharraf maintain support for militants battling Indian rule in roughly two-thirds of Kashmir, a territory to which both India and Pakistan lay claim. The region has been at the heart of Pakistani politics since the country was born at the end of British rule in 1947.

India says Musharraf has broken a promise to end what New Delhi calls "cross-border terrorism"--the infiltration of Indian-controlled territory by militants based in Pakistani areas--and the military standoff between the nations has kept them on the brink of war.

Musharraf overthrew Sharif in a bloodless coup Oct. 12, 1999. After spending time in a dank jail cell, Sharif agreed to go into exile for 10 years in Saudi Arabia in exchange for a pardon on corruption and treason charges.

After Sharif left the country, a member of his Pakistan Muslim League broke away and formed the PML-Q. The new faction is so closely allied with Musharraf that critics call it the "king's party."

On Tuesday, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said PML-Q leader Mian Mohammed Azhar has admitted he had little say in the choice of his party's candidates.

Azhar told party workers that "he was being made to send up relevant files to the government officials, leaving them to dictate such party matters," claims the commission's report on what it called preelection rigging.

"The blatant manner in which the electoral process is being vulgarized and the will of the people mocked is extremely worrying," the report says.

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