US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said on Thursday Pakistan could have an election that was fair, if not perfect, if President Pervez Musharraf lifts its state of emergency on December 16 as promised.
"I do think they can have a good election. They can have a credible election. They can have a transparent election and a fair election," Boucher told a congressional hearing.
"It's not going to be a perfect election," he said. He was asked if Pakistan could have a free election if Musharraf lifted the state of emergency as promised.
Boucher's view contrasts with that of opposition politicians and rights activists who believe there may be too little time before the January 8 parliamentary contest for a free and fair election and who want Musharraf to reinstate ousted judges.
Pakistani lawyers and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took to the streets to demand Musharraf reinstate judges that he fired after imposing emergency rule on November 3 in a crackdown on opposition politicians, the judiciary and the media.
Musharraf has freed more than 5,000 lawyers and opposition activists rounded up after he declared the emergency, but several Supreme Court judges including deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry are still being held under house arrest.
The two main opposition parties are considering boycotting the vote, moves that would rob it of credibility and prolong instability in a nuclear-armed nation that is crucial to US efforts to fight Al-Qaeda and bring peace to Afghanistan.
At the Washington hearing, lawmakers asked Boucher sharp questions about the wisdom of US financial aid to Pakistan and protesters held critical signs as he spoke, including "Stop Funding Dictators" and "Lies."
Of the country's recent turmoil, Boucher said: "One would not want to have such disruption ... this close to any election. That obviously changes the atmosphere."
But he added that he still believed it was possible to have "an election that really does reflect the choices made by the people of Pakistan."
Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, questioned this.
"It's hard to imagine how Pakistan can have a credible election without an independent judiciary. If Musharraf can get away with jailing the Supreme Court and removing all checks to his authority, why does the administration trust him to play by the rules in the election?" Malinowski said.
"To whom will the opposition turn if he tries to steal the vote?" he added.