ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Benazir Bhutto's party would try to remove President Pervez Musharraf if it wins next week's parliamentary elections, a senior party official said Friday.
"The ouster of Musharraf will put Pakistan back on the track of real democracy," Babar Awan, a member of the central executive council of the Pakistan People's Party, told The Associated Press.
Recent opinion surveys ahead of Monday's balloting show the party running well ahead of the pro-Musharraf group.
"We will win if the elections are not massively rigged," Awan said.
Awan's comments came one day after Musharraf warned opposition parties not to immediately claim election fraud and stage demonstrations after the vote.
Another opposition party, headed by ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, rejected Musharraf's warning, saying it would stage nationwide protests if it believes the election was manipulated.
"We know Musharraf wants to rig the elections," said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a senior member of Sharif's party. "If he did it, we will force him to quit through street protests."
Although Musharraf is not up for re-election, he needs a commanding majority in the legislature to block any move to impeach him.
Recent opinion surveys show support for his ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q fading and the opposition poised for a landslide victory. Opposition politicians fear the results will be manipulated in hopes of assuring the ruling party enough seats to block any impeachment.
During remarks to a seminar in the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday, Musharraf said that "despite all rumors, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful."
"We don't know who is going to lose and who is going to win," he said, adding "there will be no rigging."
The former general, who seized power in a 1999 military coup, said he was committed to democracy, "but not if it leads to the country being declared a failed state."
He called on parties to "show grace" if they lose and refrain from calling their followers into the streets to allege fraud.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack criticized Musharraf's suggestion that he would not tolerate protests after the election.
"People have the right to peacefully protest and to peacefully speak out on their opinions regardless of whether those opinions are supportive of a government," he said.
"Our view, and we have expressed these to all important actors in Pakistani political life, is that they should devote their energies to ensuring that this is the kind of election in which the Pakistani people can have confidence," McCormack added.
The United States is Musharraf's principal foreign supporter because of his role in the war against terror. But U.S. diplomats have expressed concern that growing public resentment of Musharraf threatens to tarnish America's image in Pakistan.
A survey released this week by the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute said half the Pakistanis polled planned to vote for Bhutto's party and 22 percent backed Sharif's party. Only 14 percent favored the ruling PML-Q.
The poll of 3,845 adults was conducted Jan. 19-29 and has a margin of error of plus or minus about 2 percentage points.
"I would like to say to all these foreign organizations especially, those who are conducting all these surveys, don't disturb the peace of this country, don't disturb the peace of this region," Musharraf said. "You are playing with the peace of the world."
Pakistan, a country of 160 million, faces a major challenge from Islamic extremism, especially in northwest regions bordering Afghanistan. The Dec. 27 assassination of Bhutto and a string of suicide bombings, some targeting campaign rallies, have been blamed on al-Qaida- or Taliban-linked militants.
Musharraf cited terrorism fears when he purged the judiciary, muzzled the press, and imposed a six-week state of emergency late last year. Critics said the steps were aimed at securing his rule.
Fear of violence has discouraged many candidates from holding large rallies, especially in the northwest, where Taliban militants operate. Candidates have resorted to door-to-door campaigning to drum up support or hanging banners along roadsides, though momentum has picked up in recent days.
Thousands turned out Thursday in the eastern city of Faisalabad to hear Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, appeal for votes for the Pakistan People's Party. Armed police and bodyguards ringed the stage, and snipers stood on rooftops.
A flak jacket appeared to bulge through Zardari's shawl as he told the crowd the party would keep up the fight against dictatorship.
"Our mission will continue until they kill me and kill you and every party worker at every house," he said from behind bulletproof glass.