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Pakistani politicians wind up election campaign

The politicians are winding up campaigns for a general election that is meant to complete a transition to civilian rule but has been overshadowed by fear of violence and accusations of rigging.

world Updated: Feb 16, 2008 14:46 IST

Pakistani politicians were winding up campaigns on Saturday for a general election that is meant to complete a transition to civilian rule but has been overshadowed by fear of violence and accusations of rigging.

The elections on Monday are for a new parliament and provincial assemblies and while President Pervez Musharraf is not taking part, the vote could have significant implications for the US ally if voters elect a parliament hostile to him.

The vote comes after a surge in violence that included the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on December 27, which has raised fears about the nuclear-armed country's stability.

But many Pakistanis are more concerned about rising prices and shortages of basic commodities such as wheat flour and ever more frequent power cuts.

Many are disillusioned with all politicians.

"It'll be very difficult to change this country," said Mohammad Abbas, who works in a rice shop in the town of Sabboki in Punjab province.

"Whatever the politicians do they do for themselves, not for change," said Abbas, who said he would not be voting.

The elections come after months of political turmoil over the increasingly unpopular Musharraf's efforts to stay in power.

Two-time prime minister Bhutto had been hoping to win when she was killed in a gun and bomb attack and her Pakistan People's Party is expected to reap a considerable sympathy vote.

But neither it nor either of the other two main parties, the Pakistan Muslim League that backs Musharraf, and the party of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is expected to win a majority of seats in parliament.

A coalition between two of the three main parties, looks likely, analysts say.

Campaigning officially ends at midnight on Saturday and Sunday is a cooling-off day.

Low turnout expected

The attack on Bhutto and other violence have unnerved both politicians and voters and turnout could be low, analysts say.

The government has deployed more than 80,000 troops for the vote and has declared 30 percent of the more than 64,000 polling stations "sensitive" and 14 percent "most sensitive".

All 1,122 polling stations in the violence-plagued tribal belt on the Afghan border are "most sensitive".

On Friday night, militants blew up a polling centre set up in a jail being built in Khar, the main town in the Bajaur tribal region on the Afghan border, police said. Militants had also distributed notices warning people not to vote, residents said.

Opposition parties say Musharraf's allies have been engaged in widespread pre-poll rigging.

Sharif and Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who is leading her party into the vote, have vowed streets protests if they are robbed of victory.

Musharraf rejects complaints of rigging and turned down demands to reconstitute a caretaker government set up in November and to disband district governments that the opposition says are dominated by Musharraf's allies.

The opposition also says the Election Commission is subservient to the government and is failing to act on complaints.

Musharraf says procedures have been refined to prevent cheating and the vote will be free and fair.Election Commission Secretary Kanwar Dilshad also dismissed fears of rigging.

"For the first time we're using transparent ballot boxes and also for the first time, a list of polling stations and computerised electoral lists are on a Web site," he said.

Gallup Pakistan said it found that 51 percent of people surveyed doubted the elections would be free and fair.

Nearly 81 million people, about half the country's population, are registered to vote.