- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan European Union observers assailed Pakistan's military government yesterday for giving preferential treatment to pro-government candidates, misusing state news broadcasts and locking out top political rivals during elections held this week.
Observers cited "serious flaws" in the vote last week the first since President Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999.
Pakistan's government said the charges were "just not true." An official statement said the EU conclusion was "indeed unfortunate."
Before the vote, Gen. Musharraf issued a series of decrees, including one establishing a security council that institutionalizes the military's role in government. He also gave himself the power to fire the prime minister and dissolve the legislature, and his government passed laws that required that all candidates have a university degree, which barred 90 percent of the country's largely illiterate population from seeking office.
The government's moves constituted "unjustified interference with electoral arrangements and the democratic process," said the European Union's chief observer, John Cushnahan. "The action taken by the authorities led to serious flaws in the process."
The Pakistani statement said the autonomous Election Commission had done a "reasonable job" of carrying out a "mammoth election" by an electorate enlarged to nearly 72 million people by the lowering of the voting age to 18 from 21.
EU observers also criticized the government for blocking the two best-known Pakistani politicians from running former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Mrs. Bhutto was eliminated by a Musharraf decree barring anyone convicted of crimes in absentia, and Mr. Sharif accepted a 10-year exile in Saudi Arabia in return for his release from prison after the 1999 coup.
Political analysts said Gen. Musharraf's decision to block the two from the race backfired. With both of them out of the picture, many of their supporters didn't vote, opening the door to religious parties that parlayed an anti-Western platform into their best showing to date.
The strong showing of hard-line parties marked a dramatic shift in the landscape of Pakistani politics. Their presence may challenge efforts by pro-government parties to form a centrist coalition one that would support Gen. Musharraf's alliance with the United States in the war on terror.
In the National Assembly, with almost all of the 272 general seats counted, a pro-Musharraf coalition, the Quaid-e-Azam faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, had 78 seats. Mrs. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party was second with 62, followed by the coalition of religious parties with 45.
The parties have until Nov. 1 to form a coalition, the date Gen. Musharraf set for swearing in a prime minister.
The coalition of religious parties, the United Action Front, swept to victory in the rugged North West Frontier Province, along the border with Afghanistan, and is likely to become the first Islamic provincial government in Pakistan's history. The coalition also won the most seats in Baluchistan, another province bordering Afghanistan.

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