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Pakistan Braces for Parliamentary Elections

BY Admin  February 15, 2008 at 11:15 AM EST

Pakistani election officials with voting materials

Musharraf said Thursday in Islamabad that “despite all rumors, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful,” quoted the Associated Press.

He urged parties to “show grace” if they lose and refrain from calling their members to protest and allege voter fraud, as has happened often in Pakistan’s elections. Musharraf himself is not up for election, but he could be impeached if his party suffers large losses.

Ghulam Nabi Bhatti, vice president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, said lawyers were planning to protest at some polling sites to urge voters to boycott the election because of the continued imprisonment of judges and lawyers, who were detained after earlier anti-government protests, Reuters reported.

Tens of thousands of Pakistani troops fanned out across the nation a week before the election, standing guard outside government buildings and other potentially sensitive areas, according to the Agence France-Presse.

Authorities planned to provide security for more than 64,000 polling stations, Interior Ministry spokesman Jawed Iqbal Cheema told reporters. An estimated 1,000 international observers and journalists were expected to cover the elections, he said.

“We want to make sure people can cast their vote without any fear,” he said, according to the AP. “Nobody will be allowed to disrupt the polling process. … Anyone who tries to do so will be dealt with sternly.”

Pakistan has been hit by numerous bombings leading up to the elections, most notably an explosion that killed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto during a political rally in Rawalpindi on Dec. 27. The government blamed the bombing on Taliban leaders linked to al-Qaida.

More recently, an explosion at a campaign rally in Charsadda near Peshawar, killed at least 16 people, including Awami National Party candidate Nisar Ali, according to CNN. In general, candidates have not done much campaigning for fear of bombings and because the government has discouraged large public rallies in the lead-up to the elections.

On Friday, Pakistani police arrested 10 Islamic militants in Karachi who were suspected of planning attacks during the elections and collected explosives, electrical circuits and other materials from the suspects, government Minister Akhtar Zamin told Reuters.

Musharraf’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q has been losing popularity, and the opposition is expected to make significant strides in the parliamentary elections.

Opposition leaders have made moves toward forming a coalition government following the elections. Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari, who now leads the Pakistan People’s Party with their 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari, met with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Muslim League-N, to talk about joining forces if their two parties win the most votes in the elections, as expected, reported the AP.

“We will sit together because the country is passing through a dangerous phase, and we can only steer the country out of this crisis together,” Zardari said. “I am conveying this message to the establishment that I will change this system.”

“We all have to join hands and save the country from any further deterioration,” said Sharif.

Musharraf was re-elected president in October, and later gave up his military commander post under intense political pressure. Monday’s parliamentary elections are intended to usher in a civilian-led government.

About 81 million people are registered to vote, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan.