Musharraf: Pakistan Elections to Be 'Free, Fair'

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf promised Thursday that national elections scheduled for next month would be "free, fair and transparent," dismissing fraud concerns and brushing off criticism over his dismissal of the Supreme Court chief justice.

The Pakistani leader chided the West for trying to hold his nation to unrealistic standards of human rights and democracy, saying economic growth and political stability were the main goals of his administration.

"Don't judge the country on idealistic and maybe unrealistic Western perceptions of democracy and human rights," he said at a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum. "We also believe in them, but give us some time to develop all that you have achieved in centuries."

Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3, locking up thousands of opponents, purging the Supreme Court and muzzling the media. Elections originally scheduled for January were pushed back to Feb. 18 following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Musharraf, who stepped down as army chief but continues to rule as president, has seen his popularity plummet amid the crisis, particularly over his move against the independent judiciary. He is on a tour of Europe to reassure leaders and investors that he is still in control of the country.

The Pakistani president defended his decision to fire the chief justice, saying he was corrupt and meddling in political affairs. If there is a challenge to the legitimacy of the February vote, it is the Supreme Court that will decide the case.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth questioned whether a court stacked with Musharraf loyalists would have the credibility to make such a politically charged ruling.

Musharraf said the opposition would never be satisfied, no matter whom he put on the court, but defended electoral reforms he said made fraud impossible.

"Obviously, the election in February must be fair, free and transparent," he said.

Musharraf said his government also planned to sustain strong economic growth and "carry on the fight against terrorism and extremism."

"It will have an impact even on the streets of Europe," he said.

Musharraf spoke on the panel alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai as the Pakistani army was reporting that troops backed by helicopters and artillery attacked suspected militant hideouts in tribal areas close to the Afghan border, killing 40 rebels and arresting 30. At least eight soldiers also died.

The Pakistani leader said terrorism was a "scourge" that needed to be rooted out. He said his government, which first came to power in a military coup in 1999, has given voice to more people.

"We empowered the women of Pakistan," he said, adding that they now make up 22 percent of the National Assembly. "We empowered the national minorities ... This is the essence of democracy that we have introduced."

Musharraf urged Westerners among the 2,500 business and political leaders at the forum in the Swiss Alps to try to understand what his government has accomplished by looking at the economic performance and the well-being of Pakistanis.