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Sharif’s party hurls rigging slur at Pervez

Islamabad, Sept. 26 (Reuters): The leader of one of Pakistan’s main political parties said today military President Pervez Musharraf was rigging October’s elections to ensure a compliant parliament.

Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has already awarded himself five more years as President after a controversial referendum in April. He has since amended the Constitution to give himself sweeping new powers.

Now, according to Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, chairman of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League or PML(N), Musharraf is doing his utmost to tilt the playing field in his favour for October 10. “The outside world doesn’t understand how far they can go,” Haq said in an interview. “They think elections are fair if people are allowed to cast their vote but the fact is there is more pre-poll rigging than on the day of the elections.” At the national level, political parties have been hobbled by the exclusion of two popular former Prime Ministers, Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf deposed in the 1999 coup. Bhutto has been threatened with jail if she returns to Pakistan. Sharif, in exile in Saudi Arabia, has withdrawn from the race and his relatives have been barred.

At the local level, Haq alleges that a massive official effort has been made to force politicians to abandon parties like PML(N) and stand instead for what has become known as the “King’s Party”, a faction of the Muslim League loyal to Musharraf.

A key tool, he says, is the National Accountability Bureau, a body supposed to punish corrupt politicians whose role, he says, has itself been corrupted for political ends. Politicians with cases or accusations against them have been promised they would be spared prosecution if they joined the King’s Party, PML(QA). “And very large number of them left us,” the softly spoken Haq said. “Whosoever has a large number of cases against them has crossed over.”

A carrot was also offered to reluctant politicians, he says — the promise of a place in government as part of the “winning team”. In the imperfect world of Pakistani politics, winning influential local politicians over to your side is at last half the battle, and PML(N) knows it has lost some key vote winners.

Musharraf says Pakistan’s political elite bled the country dry during more than a decade of corrupt civilian rule, and says he is trying to build a new political order. Many Pakistanis are unconvinced, seeing instead a military dictator cementing his hold on power. But with just two weeks to go before the elections, the streets of Pakistan remain quiet. Deprived of their charismatic leaders, and with restrictions on where they can hold rallies, neither the People's Party nor PML(N) have ignited any kind of national campaign yet.

There is a lacklustre and apathetic air about the polls, although Haq is convinced politics will wake up once parliament gets going.

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