Boycott, protests mar Pakistan presidential polls

By Muhammad Najeeb, IANS

Islamabad : Amid an opposition boycott and protests on the streets, Pakistani lawmakers backing the government Saturday voted to pick President Pervez Musharraf for another five years in an election closely monitored by the international community.

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Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, is easily expected to win the controversial election whose result has been barred by the Supreme Court that is hearing petitions challenging his candidacy when he is the army chief.

Members of the federal parliament and provincial assemblies supporting the government voted from 10 a.m. in the parliament house here and in the provincial assemblies in Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar.

The Election Commission for the first time used translucent or see-through ballot boxes to ensure transparency in the process.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) has the required numbers to get Musharraf elected for a second consecutive five-year term.

But 198 members of the opposition All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) have quit the national and provincial assemblies, reducing the total strength of the electoral college from the original 1,072.

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) also abstained from the widely condemned electoral exercise, making the announcement just before the voting started.

The APDM has given a countrywide strike call while lawyers, in the forefront of a campaign against Musharraf, observed a “black day” Saturday, taking out protest marches in Peshawar, Islamabad and other cities.

The protests turned violent in Peshawar, leading to clashes with the police in which at least 20 people were injured. A police jeep was set on fire. The lawyers burnt an effigy of Musharraf, shouting slogans like “Go Musharraf Go!”

Although Musharraf is Pakistan’s fourth military ruler after Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia ul Haq, he will be the first to get elected by parliament. All the others preferred to give legitimacy to their rule through referendum.

Musharraf had declared himself president for five years after a referendum in 2001 and then got a vote of confidence from the present parliament in November 2002.

Musharraf has announced a return to civilian rule after his election for the second term. His first tenure ends Nov 15 after which he is expected to doff his military uniform.

The PPP is opposed to Musharraf’s presidential ambitions while he is the army chief, but its leader Benazir Bhutto is locked in a power sharing deal with the president to help her to return to Pakistan and fight general elections.

The PPP fielded Makhdoom Amin Fahim in the presidential race even though its own 121 members abstained from the voting.

“We cannot vote for a president in uniform, we will abstain,” Fahim told reporters at the national assembly, the lower house of parliament.

The balloting took place at the National Assembly and the Senate here and in the as well as all the four assemblies in Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and North West Frontier Province.

The third candidate was former Supreme Court judge Wajihuddin Ahmed, who refused allegiance to Musharraf and resigned.

Musharraf is sure to win the presidency for another five years though the Supreme Court Friday directed the Election Commission not to announce the results until it decided on petitions challenging Musharraf’s candidature.

“I am sure to win the elections and will quit the army chief’s position as planned,” Musharraf said late night on TV where he answered questions by viewers as a presidential candidate.

“We are already on the victory stand,” Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a strong supporter of Musharraf, said outside the parliament house.

In a desperate bid to have former prime minister Bhutto on his side, Musharraf, whose popularity is rapidly on the wane, Friday night issued a National Reconciliation Ordinance giving immunity to politicians and bureaucrats facing corruption and criminal charges in courts.

Bhutto, who faces several corruption charges, is the main beneficiary of the ordinance.

But both PPP and the government insist that the ordinance is not individual specific, rather a step towards national reconciliation. They are comparing it with the post-apartheid era in South Africa.