ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Prospects for a free and fair general election in Pakistan next month are poor and a rigged result could lead to more instability and play into the hands of Islamist militants, election watchdog groups said.
Opposition parties are also complaining that a caretaker government set up to oversee the vote is stacked with supporters of President Pervez Musharraf who are already working to engineer a victory for the former ruling party.
Musharraf has urged efforts to ensure a fair vote but watchdog groups say the caretaker administration, from the central government to district level, can fix the result with the help of a tame judiciary and a partly muzzled media.
Pakistani media criticized this week a ban on live broadcasts as an attempt to control election coverage.
“We do not see elections to be as free and fair as they should be in the context of the overall framework,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
“Conditions are being created in which there’s a very strong tilt in favor of certain parties,” he said.
The former prime ministers who head the two main opposition parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, have both been allowed back after years in exile.
Despite Sharif being barred for past criminal convictions and their fears of a rigged vote, the leaders have decided their parties will take part because a boycott would only leave the field open to Musharraf’s supporters.
But they have vowed to protest against an unfair result, raising the prospect of more instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan which is already battling to stem militant violence.
Some election monitors said supporters of opposition parties were being harassed and could face exclusion from polling stations on election day. Multiple voting and tampering with vote counts could also occur.
Campaigning has begun and will pick up pace from this weekend when final candidate lists are published and a state of emergency Musharraf imposed on November 3 is due to be lifted.
A leader of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (PML) dismissed opposition fears as “poppycock” saying they talked up rigging to prepare the ground for their objections after losing.
The Election Commission, foreign observers, a robust civil society and independent media would ensure fairness, he said.
“It is going to be absolutely impossible for anybody to even think of trying to manipulate or rig the electoral process,” said PML Secretary-General Mushahid Hussain.
But Mehboob and the head of another watchdog group said the main problem was the lack of a neutral caretaker administration.
“The whole set-up is being established in order to support a particular party,” said Sarwar Bari, secretary-general of the Free and Fair Elections Network.
Members of the caretaker government are not being impartial, he said. “They’re campaigning in favor of PML candidates. It’s very open, official machinery is being used.
“It’s not an issue of a perfect election but at least we should have minimum acceptable standards which is that a level playing field must be available to all, but that is not there.”
The United States said this month the election could be fair provided the emergency was lifted.
Losers of Pakistani elections have a history of crying foul.
“If the past is any indicator, any rigged election will not bring stability. After each election which was rigged we had a crisis,” said Bari.
But apart from short-term instability, a disputed election could erode public confidence in democracy and lend ammunition to those who anyway prefer the bullet to the ballot box, they said.
“People who don’t believe in the electoral process, the extremist elements, their hands will be strengthened tremendously,” Mehboob said. “Their logic that elections are no solution will be strengthened.”