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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 February 2008, 17:19 GMT
Fraud fears overshadow Pakistan polls
By Chris Morris
BBC News, Islamabad

Democracy, Benazir Bhutto said, is the best form of revenge.

Benazir Bhutto features heavily in her party's poll propaganda

She is eulogised in election songs produced by her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and her face stares out from the party's election posters dotted around the city.

But on the day she was assassinated in December, Ms Bhutto was about to present evidence which cast grave doubt on whether Pakistan's parliamentary elections would be free and fair.

More than six weeks later, with the delayed elections nearly upon us, her opinions still matter.

The report she had with her on the day she died talks of election violence, intimidation and corrupt officials. According to the PPP, nothing has changed.

Senator Enver Beg says more than 100 parliamentary candidates who support President Pervez Musharraf are close relatives of the people who are running the elections, district by district.

"They will use government machinery, government finances and government funds. They will use government transport," he said.

"They have the police under their control. District officials have been transferred in violation of the law. I call this dishonest."

'Unprecedented open-ness'

The PPP has filed more than 1,200 complaints with the election commission, but has received virtually no response.

"I'm sorry to say," said Senator Beg, "that the election commission is deaf, dumb and blind. They just take all these complaints and throw them in the dustbin."

Poll worker displays officials election seals
The government says the elections have never been more open

And that probably reflects the view of the majority of Pakistan's opposition parties and their supporters - partly because some of them have experience of rigging elections themselves.

There is a crisis of confidence in official institutions here.

The international pressure group Human Rights Watch says the election commission simply isn't politically impartial.

But the commission's secretary, Kanwar Dilshad, disputes that finding, and scoffs at opposition claims of organised fraud.

"There has been no pre-poll rigging," he declared.

"All these complaints are contrary to the facts. District officials have found there is no case to answer."

Mr Dilshad says the commission is committed to maintaining neutrality and impartiality.

"For example, there are about 64,000 polling stations which have been established. That list has already been posted on the website. That is the first time the process has been so open."

Scepticism

At an election rally in a small park on the outskirts of Islamabad, supporters of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have gathered to hear from their local candidate. Flags carrying his party's tiger symbol flutter in the breeze.

Pakistani troops in Karachi
There are fears allegations of vote rigging could provoke violence

There is plenty of enthusiasm among the party faithful, but in a small market at one corner of the park scepticism comes quickly to the fore.

"How can you call them free and fair when you haven't got a free judiciary and a free election commission?" asked one man.

"Definitely there will be rigging. And then people will come out on the street and say this is not right," says another.

"I haven't voted and I don't intend to this time. They never come and work for us."

At the headquarters of the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a coalition of NGO groups, they are preparing forms to be filled in by some 20,000 volunteers who will be monitoring the election around the country.

It will be an important job, especially as many international election observers won't be present on election day. Some have pulled out, citing security concern, others - like the Commonwealth - haven't been allowed in.

The Secretary General of FAFEN, Sarwar Bari, believes his organisation will get a pretty accurate picture of what is happening around the country. And he doesn't much like what he's seen so far.

Protesting lawyers in Pakistan
Many argue that elections cannot be fair without an independent judiciary
"This is perhaps the most controversial election in Pakistan's history.

"Two major parties are participating under protest, and the judiciary has been bulldozed," he says.

"I hope I'm wrong, but I foresee chaos after the polling."

A number of smaller parties are boycotting the election altogether, convinced that the process cannot be fair.

Benazir Bhutto, for all her reservations, had embarked upon a different path.

But in the end, what matters is not whether the election is rigged or not.

What matter is whether Pakistan's people will accept the result which emerges next week.

And in that respect, this is a country holding its breath and hoping for the best.



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