LARKANA, Pakistan (AFP)- Pakistan’s bitter election campaign heated up again Sunday as the country’s main opposition leaders accused President Pervez Musharraf of trying to rig the vote two weeks from now.
Musharraf, battling a wave of militant violence that saw 56 people killed in another suicide attack Friday, is under intense international pressure to ensure the January 8 parliamentary election is free and fair.
But Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, boosted by a recent poll which found Pakistanis overwhelmingly oppose the president, hit the campaign trail with allegations that he will engineer a parliament that favours him.
Holding the first rallies since an Islamic holiday marred by the attack, Bhutto suggested Musharraf was a “dictator” who had mishandled the mounting insurgency, mainly in the north, that has killed at least 750 people this year.
“In our north, the flag of Pakistan is being lowered and the flag of extremism is being raised,” she told around 25,000 thousand supporters in the southern town of Larkana.
Referring to the recent survey, Bhutto called for mass protests if pro-Musharraf parties win the election.
“The government has created a rogue force. They have hired goons who will be deployed at polling stations in police uniform, which will be a source of vote-rigging,” the former premier said.
Musharraf, a pivotal US ally in the “war on terror”, has been struggling to keep a lid on the insurgency, especially in the country’s rugged tribal northwest along the border with Afghanistan.
But he has also been faced with months of political turmoil that began when he suspended the chief justice of the supreme court in March and led to imposition of a six-week state of emergency which he lifted on December 15.
Critics charge the real reason for the emergency was to give cover for a purge of anti-Musharraf judges in the judiciary who might have considered legal challenges to his October re-election as president.
Every election in Pakistan since 1985 has been marred by allegations of massive voter fraud and Sharif, ousted from power by Musharraf eight years ago, said next month’s vote would be no different.
“The government has plans to rig the elections massively,” he told reporters at Lahore airport before flying to his own campaign rally in the southern city of Karachi. “It has all the expertise to do so.”
Bhutto and Sharif, who both returned from exile ahead of the elections, have each served two terms as prime minister, and their parties remain potent political forces in Pakistan.
The United States again urged Musharraf, whose government was one of only three to recognise the hardline Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks in 2001, to move toward democracy.
“The key here is that these elections move Pakistan forward on the democratic path,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told AFP in Washington.
Militant commanders have vowed to disrupt the election while any victory by pro-Musharraf parties could, as Bhutto suggested Sunday, spell more political turmoil ahead.
The president has shrugged off allegations the vote will be rigged and promised it will be “absolutely fair and transparent”.