Pakistanis Fear Vote Will Be Rigged

Amid a climate of insecurity, Pakistan holds parliamentary elections on Monday. Residents widely believe the vote will be rigged, and many expect violence to break out if President Pervez Musharraf's unpopular party does well.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Voters in Pakistan will finally be going to the polls this Monday. Parliamentary elections have been delayed six weeks after the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. There have already been suicide bombings and other pre-election violence, and many fear the vote will be rigged when it does happen.

NPR's Jackie Northam is in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and she joins us. Good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Jackie, I understand Pakistani police have made some arrests today related to the election. What do you know about that?

NORTHAM: The police here say they have arrested 10 men in Karachi and they say they are suspected of planning an attack during the parliamentary elections on Monday. The police say that they found a cache of explosives, detonator caps, electrical circuits, and various other materials during the raid.

Police are so far vague about who the men are. They just say they're former members of various militant groups that have now joined forces. But the police do believe the men were planning an attack.

MONTAGNE: Well, this seems to bear out overall fears that there will be violence and maybe even deadly violence during the voting. There must be a lot of tension in the capital and elsewhere around the country right now.

NORTHAM: Oh, there are enormous security concerns here. In fact, nearly half the country is off-limits to international election monitors because of the danger. Tens of thousands of soldiers and paramilitary and police are being called out to help provide security.

But just to give you a sense of the distrust here, the climate here - the government says itwqill send in police in to guard polling stations. And instead of people thinking, oh, this is a good sign that'll make people feel safe, they think either the police are going to be there to help rig the votes or that they'll attract trouble, because it's been the police and military who've been the targets of many of the recent attacks.

Now, the Taliban says it will not launch any attacks on election day, but already there have been bombings at campaign rallies and some local political headquarters, mostly in Pakistan's frontier tribal area, and at least 24 political workers have been killed in the past week alone.

Now, whether those attacks were launched by the Taliban or not, it doesn't matter, because the end result is that it creates a climate of insecurity which makes it difficult for candidates to campaign and certainly for people to show up at the voting booths.

MONTAGNE: And beyond Pakistanis being worried about vote rigging, international organizations have expressed concern. And the group Human Rights Watch just released an audiotape of Pakistan's attorney general. Now, it's a phone recording in Urdu, but we have translated part of it here. And it was made before Benazir Bhutto's assassination. The attorney general refers both to her and to another opposition leader, Nawar Sharif.

Attorney General MALIK QAYYUM (Pakistan): (Through translator) I think Nawar Sharif will not take part in the election. If he does take part he will be in trouble. If Benazir takes part, she too will be in trouble. They will massively rig to get their own people to win.

MONTAGNE: Now, Jackie, when he says they, he means - and he's the attorney general, but he means the government.

NORTHAM: Well, that's what Human Rights Watch is saying, and they've gone over this tape for, you know, weeks now. The attorney general, Malik Qayyum, whose voice you hear, is a staunch supporter of the president. Musharraf appointed him to that post in August. And yet Human Rights Watch says it's clear. He suspects his own party, Musharraf's party, of doing the rigging.

But many people here in Pakistan widely believe there's going to be vote rigging in this election, especially if Musharraf's party does well. There have been several independent polls done recently and they all show that President Musharraf's party is expected to do very badly in these elections. One poll found that his party's only expected to garner about 15 percent of the vote.

So if it looks as though Musharraf's party is going to do much better than that, or win, then it's expected there will be violence. And opposition parties have indicated they'll call their people to the streets. And maybe because Musharraf's expecting this, during a national television address yesterday he warned that street protests in the wake of the elections would not be tolerated.

Now, that could be for security reasons, but it could also be he's not willing to brook any opposition. And Renee, the U.S. State Department was very quick to point out yesterday that Pakistanis should have the right to demonstrate peacefully.

MONTAGNE: After Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, there was talk that her party would win a massive sympathy vote. Is that still likely? Now, obviously if it's not rigged to show otherwise.

NORTHAM: The recent polls that I was just speaking about do show that Benazir Bhutto's party appears to be the favorite going into the polls by a small margin, not an overwhelming amount. After that the polls show that it's the party of Nawar Sharif, another former prime minister and opposition leader. And all the polls, again, show that President Musharraf's party is falling way behind.

MONTAGNE: And, Jackie, amidst all this political drama around the voting, Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan has gone missing in the tribal region on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan a few days ago.

NORTHAM: That's right, and the government still has no idea where he is. They've launched a massive search team for him and they've, you know, arrested local militia and they've also arrested tribal leaders, but no sign of him yet. And you can imagine, this is highly embarrassing for the government so close to election day.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Jackie Northam speaking from Islamabad. Thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

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