Bhutto fearful of voter rigging in Pakistan's elections today


PRESIDENT Farooq Leghari of Pakistan vowed yesterday that today's elections would be free and fair, but the ousted prime minister, Ms Benazir Bhutto, said she feared vote rigging.

"By tomorrow night, we will, God willing, complete the process of free, fair and transparent elections," Mr Leghari said in a televised address to the nation, hours before the polls were due to open at 7 a.m. (2 a.m. Irish time).

Ms Bhutto's main rival, former prime minister Mr Nawaz Sharif, said he was confident of winning the election. Opinion polls put him as the front runner.

Mr Leghari, who sacked Ms Bhutto's government three months ago on charges of corruption and misrule, asked people to vote "wisely and selflessly" today.

He said a government giving good governance could justly expect to complete its tenure, "but a government which is reckless and will not be forgiven".

Speaking at her family village of Nuadero in the southern province of Sindh, Ms Bhutto said she had reports that the caretaker government planned to rag the vote in 63 constituencies of the 217 seat National Assembly (lower house) and that she would not accept the result if that happened.

Mr Sharif said he was counting on a comfortable majority in the National Assembly. He said tackling Pakistan's dire economic problems would be his first priority if elected prime minister.

Speaking in his home city of Lahore, he said repairing the economy would be a long, difficult task, but he was confident Pakistan could become an "Asian Tiger".

"The economy is in very bad shape because of the mismanagement of the Benazir Bhutto government," he said.

Ms Bhutto, who received a tumultuous welcome as she drove to Nuadero, said Pakistan was in "a terrible economic crisis" that only her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) could tackle.

Ms Bhutto said she would not accept the result if it did not reflect the results of the 1988 and 1993 elections, which she had won. "If there is rigging, the nation will not accept the result."

Mr Alam said his commission had made arrangements to hold fair elections and he expected a good turnout of voters.

Most commentators have predicted a low turnout after a lacklustre campaign in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Mr Leghari sacked Ms Bhutto's government on charges of corruption and misrule, but the caretaker government he appointed has failed to nail any leading politicians or bar them from standing for election.

A PPP spokesman denied a report by the London Sunday Times that Ms Bhutto might seek asylum in Britain if she lost the poll.

"It's rubbish," the spokesman said. "She has got to play a historic role in the politics of Pakistan and she will never flee the country."

The Sunday Times quoted senior Pakistani government sources as saying that corruption charges against Ms Bhutto and her jailed husband, Mr Asif Ali Zardari, would be dropped if she agreed to leave the country and abandon politics.

Ms Bhutto and Mr Zardari, who is held on a charge of conspiring in the murder of his wife's estranged brother, Murtaza, in September, have denied any wrongdoing, saying they are victims of a plot.

Last week, the Supreme Court upheld Mr Leghari's dismissal of Ms Bhutto, saying there was enough evidence of corruption, nepotism and other abuses for him to have fired her.

Corruption has been the main issue in a campaign that has failed to excite Pakistanis, many of whom are disillusioned by the perceived misdeeds of the political class.

Mr Imran Khan, Pakistan's former cricket captain, was the first to focus public attention on the issue, but polls suggest his Tehriki Insaaf (Justice Movement) is unlikely to win more than a few seats.

Mr Sharif, an industrialist, promised to strengthen a commission set up by the caretaker government to root out corruption.