President Pervez Musharraf pledged to hold "free, fair, transparent and peaceful" elections in Pakistan as he sought to portray himself as a bulwark against extremism and warned that failure could bring terror "to the streets of Europe".
Speaking yesterday in London, the Pakistani leader described in dramatic terms the challenge facing his country, where parliamentary elections have been postponed until next month following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. He compared the situation to the decade-long struggle waged by the West and Pakistan against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989 during the Cold War. He said: "We are in the forefront fighting terrorism and extremism. If we lose, there will be an impact on the region and around the world – maybe on the streets of Europe."
The Pakistani President yesterday brought his travelling charm offensive to London. Earlier in the week he had visited the Davos Economic Forum and Paris. He did not say so in so many words, but his message on each stop was very clearly the diplomatic equivalent of: après moi, le déluge.
Mr Musharraf, in his address to the security think-tank Royal United Services Institute, took pains to address specific concerns which have been raised by the Pakistani opposition, Western governments and human rights groups, ranging from the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to the judicial crisis triggered by his sacking of the country's chief justice. The shouts of demonstrators from Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party could occasionally be heard inside the hall as he spoke.
Pressed by reporters on his promise to hold free and fair elections on 18 February, he spelled out the measures taken by the government to prevent fraud. "We've removed the bugs," he stressed. Details of polling stations and electoral rolls would be published on the internet to prevent ghost stations and fraudulent votes. The ballots would not be transferred to Islamabad but counted on the spot in the presence of the political parties. "What more can I do?" he asked.
Mr Musharraf's statement on the elections goes some way towards meeting the British Government's "wish list" expected to be discussed when the former military leader meets Gordon Brown on Monday. Asked if he could guarantee a free and fair poll, the president replied: "If you give me a certificate, I'll sign."
"That's the message the UK government wants to hear," said Nick Grono, a vice-president of the International Crisis Group, who pointed out that the British Government continued to support the beleaguered general as the "best bet" for stability in Pakistan. However, he said his group thought Mr Musharraf was actually an obstacle to stability and is calling for him to leave office on the grounds that "his continued efforts to retain power at all costs are incompatible with national reconciliation".
Mr Grono said he feared that the elections cannot be free and fair unless a neutral election commission is in place and while the powerful military intelligence ISI is working for the election of Mr Musharraf's PML-N party.
His comments echoed those of the Pakistani opposition. Wajid Shamsul Hasan, a close aide of Ms Bhutto, who warned in a letter to the Independent yesterday that the President's ruling party was "still running the election process, with the intelligence service assisting".
The Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan, speaking in Washington on Thursday, said that an independent judiciary able to supervise the elections was "the only way out of the quagmire". He said he could not understand Washington's decision to stick with Mr Musharraf, and also criticised the failure to press for the reinstatement of the senior judges who were removed from power during the state of emergency invoked by President Musharraf just before the supreme court was to rule on the validity of his re-election.
Mr Grono warned that the British Government's failure to demand the judges' reinstatement was undermining British policy goals in Afghanistan, where a process of democratisation is being promoted.
Mr Brown was put on the defensive yesterday after President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, speaking in Davos, accused the British military of bungling the UK-led military operation against the Taliban in southern Helmand province. The Prime Minister's aides angrily rejected the accusations, pointing out that British troops had died to defend Afghanistan from the Taliban.
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