General who seized power promises Pakistan will go to the polls next year

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The general who seized power in Pakistan's 1999 bloodless coup and later declared himself president promised yesterday to hold provincial and federal elections.

Making the announcement on his country's Independence Day, General Pervez Musharraf said the polls – the final stop on his "roadmap to democracy" – would take place on 1 to 11 October next year. There was no indication in his speech that he intended to give up his position as leader.

In the address, which was televised to local councils, General Musharraf also criticised religious and ethnic violence in Pakistan, introduced a harsh anti-terrorist law and enacted orders banning two militant extremist groups.

He also pleaded for tolerance and urged an end to sectarian violence, which has left scores of people dead in this mostly Muslim nation.

"We have to unite to shun sectarian forces, shun despondency and have faith in God and in ourselves that we will be able to achieve great successes. We have to advocate tolerance, understanding of each other's views and beliefs," he said. The general also promised to reform the election commission, prepare accurate electoral rolls and make constitutional changes that will "introduce checks and balances" into the system.

Political analysts expect General Musharraf will introduce changes to the constitution to strengthen the position of president and create a new political system run by civilians but supervised by the army. The Supreme Court last year ordered general elections by October 2002, but gave General Musharraf unrestricted power to change the constitution.

The former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) dismissed the speech as "self-righteousness on the one hand and expressions of pious hopes and vague promises on the other".

Ms Bhutto, who lives in self-imposed exile in Britain and the United Arab Emirates, has twice been dismissed from power over allegations of corruption and still faces trial on corruption charges in Pakistan.

General Musharraf seized power in October 1999, saying that Pakistan's democratic institutions had collapsed and the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif had destroyed the economy and threatened the survival of the country.

The army has ruled Pakistan for 27 of the past 54 years and successive civilian governments have been overthrown after being charged with corruption and ineptitude.

With giant banners proclaiming Pakistan a great state and Kashmir, the disputed territory that has been at the centre of two wars with neighbouring India, a humanitarian tragedy, General Musharraf promised that he intended to give his country a democratic rule that would last.

"I salute the nation. I salute the people of Pakistan," he said earlier in the day at a flag- raising ceremony to mark the nation's independence from India in 1947.

A return to democratic rule in Pakistan has been a consistent demand of the international community.

President George Bush's American administration is expected to lift sanctions against the nation when a civilian government is elected.