- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan More than five weeks of lackluster campaigning culminates today in the first parliamentary elections in Pakistan since a military coup three years ago, but no obvious candidate for prime minister has emerged.
President Pervez Musharraf, who has promised to return the country to democracy before the third anniversary of the military takeover on Oct. 12, has eliminated two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, from the contest.
An interesting drama should unfold two weeks after the vote when, as president, he is expected to choose a prime minister from among members of the new parliament.
"We are at the crossroads of history and about to start a new democratic era. So vote diligently," Gen. Musharraf appealed in an address to the nation yesterday.
"I will transfer full executive powers to the prime minister, and then I will give up the post of the chief executive," Reuters news agency quoted the general as saying.
"I also want to say that one power I shall always keep, about which there will be no compromise, and that is the solidarity and survival of Pakistan and the running of government free from corruption and dishonesty."
Gen. Musharraf allowed the political parties only 38 days to campaign, not enough for the current heads of five or six leading political parties to get much media exposure.
In July and August, the general used military ordinances to have Mrs. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif eliminated from the race. The move angered many who had hoped that one of the two would emerge again as prime minister.
"I won't give my vote to anyone," said a Karachi taxi driver angrily. "What have these people done for the poor?" A minute later he added, "They didn't allow Benazir to return. I won't vote."
In an interview, Mrs. Bhutto told The Washington Times she wanted her supporters to turn out anyway and vote for the Pakistan People's Party, which she still controls from outside the country. "I plan continuing the campaign to restore democracy and to urge the people of Pakistan to vote for the PPP," she said.
Her pictures adorn campaign posters of party candidates across the country, and she has been using both the foreign and local media to hammer away at her pet theme the restoration of democracy.
Mrs. Bhutto says her party could win an outright majority in a fair and free election, but worries that Gen. Musharraf will probably rig the polls to ensure that her party wins only 65 to 100 seats, far short of the 171 it needs for a majority in the 342-seat National Assembly.
The PPP still hopes to form a government in a postelection coalition with Mr. Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) the main faction of the PML, which split three ways after the 1999 coup.
Unlike Mrs. Bhutto, Mr. Sharif has not attempted to use the media to stay in the limelight. He is living in exile in Saudi Arabia, where the government does not allow him to be politically active.
Mrs. Bhutto faces the same restrictions in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where she spends much of her time, but she moved back to London recently to give herself more freedom to maneuver.
Gen. Musharraf is seen to be supporting another faction of the PML, the Pakistani Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), or PML(Q), made up of conservatives who believe he should be given a chance to keep his pledge of putting the country on the path to a stable democracy.
Rival parties say PML(Q), dubbed the "king's party," will rubber-stamp Gen. Musharraf's decisions if it wins office.
Meanwhile, political observers and diplomats are keeping a close watch on a clerical group called the Mutahida Majlis-i-Amal, or United Action Council (MMA), which is made up of six leading clerical parties with links to several Islamic militant groups.
With 62 parties and two coalitions competing, no reliable opinion polls and many tight contests at the local level, the result of today's parliamentary election is too close to call.

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