WASHINGTON – A senior U.S. diplomat said on Tuesday some fraud was to be expected in Pakistan’s elections on February 18 but the United States was working hard to ensure a poll that is “as free and fair as possible.”
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher made the comments at a congressional hearing where lawmakers questioned whether a fair election was possible under President Pervez Musharraf, who has fired Supreme Court justices, placed restrictions on the media and detained opposition lawyers.
The election is meant to complete a transition to civilian rule in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a U.S. ally which has suffered from a surge of attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants based on the Afghan border.
Fears about the stability of Pakistan, which Musharraf has ruled since he seized power as a general in a bloodless coup in 1999, have been aggravated by the December 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
Boucher said Pakistan has a history of electoral abuses but that the United States had worked to counter this by supporting observer missions, creating U.S. embassy teams to monitor key races and pressing the government to ensure transparency.
“We don’t necessarily accept a certain level of fraud but, if history is any guide and current reports are any guide, we should expect some,” Boucher, the top U.S. diplomat for South and Central Asia, told the lawmakers.
“We continue to work very hard to try to ensure an election that’s as free and fair as possible.”
Speaking in London on Friday, Musharraf said the election would be “free, fair, transparent and peaceful,” adding that “any bugs in the system that could be manipulated have been removed by me and the election officials.”
Boucher faced skepticism from lawmakers who pressed him on why the United States has not demanded that Musharraf reinstate the Supreme Court justices he dismissed in November.
“Our view is that the issue of an independent Pakistani judiciary can’t be solved that simply,” Boucher said, saying he did not expect Pakistan to address the matter until after the elections, when he hoped that elected politicians could decide how to build an independent judiciary.
Lawmakers also asked how a fair election was possible with a Supreme Court that Musharraf appeared to have stacked.
John Tierney, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the panel that held the hearing, said that unless Musharraf was willing to release detained justices and to “appoint people who are not perceived to be his puppets … how are we ever going to get people to accept any election as being legitimate?”
Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, added: “I can’t get beyond the fact that he basically dissolved the judiciary, and put them aside, and it seems that almost everything that follows from that point becomes a farce.”
Boucher argued that the greater the scrutiny by Pakistani media, opposition parties and outside observers, the lower the chances of the election being rigged.
“It’s harder to get away with now … There is going to be a lot of reporting, there is going to be an enormous number of observers around. The political parties are well organized and, believe me, they will cry foul if there are any fouls,” he said. “I don’t think we should give up on this election.”