The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Benazir keeps hopes high

Islamabad, Oct. 7 (Reuters): Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said today the military government was doing everything in its power to rig Thursday’s parliamentary elections, but said there was still a chance her party could win.

Bhutto has been excluded from the elections and threatened with jail if she returns to Pakistan for failing to answer corruption charges.

Speaking by telephone from London, she said Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence service, the ISI, had been coercing candidates from her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to either switch sides or stand down in the elections. And she said plans had been put in place to stuff ballot boxes in selected polling stations to prevent the PPP from becoming the biggest party in the polls.

“They have done everything in their power to rig the elections, and they have been rigged from (President) General (Pervez) Musharraf’s own office,” she said.

Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and has since become a key US ally in the war on terror. He awarded himself another five years as President in an April referendum which critics said was rigged in his favour.

Musharraf remains popular among many Pakistanis for his stance against corruption and for stabilising the country’s shaky economy. But the charismatic Bhutto also commands considerable support, despite the accusations of corruption and misrule which surrounded her two terms as Prime Minister in the 1980s and 1990s.

These elections are too close to call, but based on the limited polls that exist, the PPP has a good chance of becoming the largest party, albeit well short of a majority. Bhutto says she would expect to win between 40 to 42 per cent of the 342 seats in a fair vote, but said the ISI had already decided the PPP should win just 65 to 100 seats, and planned to manipulate the elections in favour of more compliant parties.

“What they are planning to do is send two ballot boxes, one will be empty, which the presiding officer will show everyone and sign it in front of them,” she said. “But they will also be signing another box which has been pre-filled.”

and these two boxes will be switched at some point.”

Bhutto said she had written to the chief election commissioner, asking him to make sure the boxes are signed by all polling agents, rather than just by the returning officer. TOO SOON TO RETURN

Bhutto had originally promised to return to contest the polls, but failed to overturn her exclusion or the threat of jail despite several court appeals.

She said she would love to come back, but that could only happen if a powerful civilian government emerged after the polls which could challenge the military's hold over the judiciary.

”What could be better for me than to return to a red carpet treatment from the prime minister' That would really be hitting the jackpot,” she said.“But realistically speaking we will have to see who controls the courts.”

If the PPP is in a position to form a government, Bhutto said her party would look first to the PML(N) - a branch of the Pakistan Muslim League loyal to another exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

But she says it then becomes“a game of numbers” and admits her party would also try to coax people away from other parties, like the PML(QA), widely seen as backed by Musharraf's government.

But while Bhutto breathes fire and brimstone, her man in Pakistan is being much more cautious. Makhdoom Amin Fahim has a reasonable chance of becoming prime minister after the polls and seems to be taking a more conciliatory line.

”We hope that the elections are free and fair... but we will have to wait and see,” he told Reuters on Sunday. Asked how a future prime minister would get on with the president, he said:“I wish that both sides should work for the future of Pakistan.”

Najam Sethi, editor of the influential weekly Friday Times, says the PPP is keeping its options open ahead of the polls, knowing it might have to deal with Musharraf on the one hand or Nawaz Sharif on the other.

”Benazir is taking a hard line and Makhdoom is taking a soft line because Makhdoom is the one who will have to deal with Musharraf,” he said.“Makhdoom could be the bridge between Benazir and Musharraf.”

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