- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Pakistanis voted yesterday in elections that the military government hailed as a historic return to democratic rule and the opposition denounced as a stage-managed sleight of hand to mask President Pervez Musharraf's firm grip on power.

Sporadic violence left at least seven persons dead, a bloody but common occurrence in Pakistan's rough-and-tumble politics. Turnout was projected to be low, hurt in part by a series of decrees that kept the country's best-known political players on the sidelines and by self-declared constitutional changes that have assured Gen. Musharraf ultimate control of Pakistan's fate.

Gen. Musharraf an important U.S. ally in the war on terrorism has created a military-controlled National Security Council that will vet all national policy decisions. He has also granted himself the power to fire the prime minister and dissolve parliament, rendering the vote little more than window dressing for continued military rule.

Hours after the polls closed at 5 p.m., no results had been released, and it was not clear who would gain control of parliament. An unofficial exit poll showed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) had an early lead in the two large provinces of Punjab and Sindh.

In this country of 140 million, about 72 million were eligible to vote. Most major cities reported light to moderate turnout.

Nearly 100 parties were contesting the elections for a new parliament, prime minister and four regional legislatures. But the vote mostly pitted PPP against a coalition of parties supportive of Gen. Musharraf. Pre-election opinion polls predicted a tight race.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League also was considered a strong force, and the United Action Forum, a hodgepodge of Islamic hard-liners, was expected to win support amid a strong undercurrent of resentment over the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Though their parties pressed on, neither Mrs. Bhutto nor Mr. Sharif was actually running. A Musharraf decree that bars from contesting anyone convicted of a crime in absentia has eliminated Mrs. Bhutto, who has been convicted of corruption and is living in self-imposed exile. Mr. Sharif, who was ousted by the general in 1999, accepted a 10-year exile to Saudi Arabia in return for release from prison.

International observers were monitoring the elections amid accusations from the opposition and human rights activists that the military was manipulating the vote. The government has denied the charges, promising the elections would be "transparent and fair."

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer hailed the vote and pledged continued U.S. support.

"This is an important milestone in Pakistan's ongoing transition to democracy," he said. "We are committed to remaining engaged with Pakistan throughout this transition process."

Gen. Musharraf, who will remain president for five more years after winning a disputed referendum in April, has defended his hold on power as protection against a return of corrupt and incompetent politicians. He says a new prime minister will be sworn in on Nov. 1, and has promised to step back and allow him or her to run the country's day-to-day affairs.

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