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Zardari Speaks to The Tribune
‘We want our rightful share in power’
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

The leader of Pakistan's largest opposition party is doubtful that the February 18 parliamentary elections in his country will be free or fair and wants the international community to monitor the vote.

In an interview with The Tribune from Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari said the first step towards ensuring Pakistan's transition to a democracy is free, transparent and fair elections. But, he added, "In the current state the elections cannot be free and fair."

Under pressure from the US, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf had scheduled elections for January 8 but promptly postponed these to February 18 after Benazir Bhutto's assassination in Rawalpindi on December 27.

"The electoral rolls are flawed. The election commission is far from independent. The media and judiciary are not free. The district governments and intelligence agencies are openly engaged in electoral fraud," Mr Zardari said.

The PPP has issued a 146-page report detailing accusations of pre-poll rigging. Mr Zardari said Mrs. Bhutto planned to give the report to two US Congressmen the day she was assassinated.

Mr Zardari has also written to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging the Bush administration to lean on Musharraf to ensure a fair election. “Given the critical state of Pakistan, the PPP would welcome clear and decisive statements by the US Administration and the US Congress that put the Government of Pakistan on notice that nothing less than a completely clean election process will be acceptable”, Mr Zardari said in the letter.

He said he is willing to explore all possibilities for the return of democracy to his country but none that will extend Musharraf's dictatorship. “Coalitions and power-sharing are concepts under normal politics and constitutional rule. We are open to all options to ensure restoration of democracy but we will not become part of any excuse to maintain dictatorship”, he said. Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

Mr Zardari maintained that the PPP was “not looking for crumbs of power from a dictator's table. We will take our rightful share in power under the constitution after a free and fair election."

According to sources close to the PPP, the party is likely to field Amin Fahim, Mrs Bhutto's trusted lieutenant, as its prime ministerial candidate. Mr Zardari said such talk was premature. If the opposition parties win a majority in the elections they can move to impeach Mr Musharraf. The former general has said he would resign in such an event. Asked whether such action was on his agenda, Mr Zardari replied: “The PPP has just lost its leader. I have just lost my wife. My children have lost their mother. Our party is facing massive repression and threats to our security. Pakistanis are engaged in a struggle for the restoration of democracy. I think these are the realities we face. This question is hypothetical. For now, we are focused on the elections”.

Pakistan's ambassador in the US, Mahmud Ali Durrani, told The Washington Times earlier this month that Musharraf "does not rule out any coalition" after the vote. But Mr Zardari lashed out at Mr Musharraf saying the leader "has shown that he does not respect the constitution and considers his own word above that of the law."

He contended, "Power cannot be carved up on a dictator's table. For us legitimate power can only accrue from the power of the ballot, not the bullet."

Mr Zardari is himself a controversial figure in Pakistani politics. Dubbed "Mr. 10 Percent" by opponents for his purportedly corrupt dealings, he served 11 years in prison but was never convicted. He says this was the price he had to pay for being the spouse of Pakistan's symbol of democracy.

Critics have accused the Bhuttos of handing down leadership of the PPP like a "family heirloom." Since her death, Mr Zardari and the couple's 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, have jointly taken the reins of the PPP, founded by Mrs Bhutto's father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Mr Zardari says the decision to elect him and his son co-chairmen of the PPP was made by the party's central executive committee. "Just because the people support one family does not make the choice undemocratic. The chair we now occupy is a bloody one. It is not one that everyone wants," he said.

Outlining his vision for the party, Mr. Zardari told the Tribune, “The PPP is the only party that has openly identified extremism and dictatorship as the twin challenges that threaten our survival. Fighting militancy was Benazir Bhutto's vision for a stable, modern Pakistan and I will do all I can to realize this dream”.



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