Pakistan's military ruler on Thursday announced nationwide local elections - considered a first step toward a return to democracy.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf's promise came two days before U.S. President Bill Clinton is scheduled to visit Pakistan, where he is expected to press the army chief for a timeframe for general elections.
Musharraf has rebuffed international pressure to return Pakistan to democracy quickly, saying the task ahead is onerous. But Thursday, he said the first round of local elections will be held between December and May 2001. A second round of local elections - at the district level - will be held in July 2001, effectively putting municipal governments back in power.
"We want to empower the impoverished, the people at the grassroots level," Musharraf said in Islamabad. "From here we will move up step by step to provincial and federal (elections) in due course," he said.
Musharraf's military toppled Premier Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup last October, accusing his government of corruption.
Musharraf has called Sharif's government a "sham democracy" and vowed that the next time an elected government takes power in Pakistan it will be through a "real democracy."
Before holding the local elections, the army-led government says it wants to revise a 20-year-old electoral list and make new identity cards that cannot easily be forged.
"We have to create a new electoral roll," Musharraf said. "They are all bogus. They have been manipulated and distorted. No one has any faith in them."
Musharraf's also proposed allocating seats for women, minorities, and for the first time, the poorest - whom Musharraf referred to as "workers and peasants." In Pakistan, the wealthy generally dominate politics and dictate who the poor should vote for.
Clinton, who is visiting Pakistan for five hours on Saturday, is expected to hold at least two rounds of talks with Musharraf and address the nation on television.
Musharraf is expected to tell Clinton that the local elections are proof of his commitment to return Pakistan to democratic rule.
But first on his agenda will be the 52-year-old dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
Kashmir was divided after British rule ended in 1947 and both neighbors claim it in its entirety. Pakistan has asked the United States to help find a peaceful solution to the dispute which has been the cause of two wars and is the reason both countries site for massive military spending. Both India and Pakistan have tested nuclear devices.
Musharraf said he will tell Clinton there can be no guarantee of peace in South Asia unless the dispute is settled.
"We want peace, but I will be very frank with him 'that unless you address the main issue bewildering the region, which is Kashmir, there can be no peace."'
Clinton is expected to press Pakistan to roll back its nuclear program and sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Musharraf is not expected to concede on either issues.
Musharraf's announcement on local elections coincided with Pakistan's national day, which marks the 60th anniversary of a resolution that eventually led its creation in 1947. Pakistan celebrated with a military parade that highlighted its being the first Muslim nuclear power, displaying military hardware including missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
"We are prepared to defend ourselves both in conventional and unconventional weapons," said Musharraf. He said so far Pakistan's nuclear deterrence has prevented a war with neighbor India.
"There is very little likelihood of war," he said. "There is no need to be afraid."
Clinton has refused to mediate the Kashmir dispute unless both sides ask for U.S. help. India rejects international mediation and has refused to restart talks with Pakistan demanding Islamabad first stop Muslim militants from crossing the disputed border into Kashmir territory.
Pakistan denies that it is sending militants across the border, saying it gives them only moral and political support.
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