U.S. Pushing Pakistan to Fix Election Distortions, Senior Official Tells Lawmakers

A senior Bush administration official said Tuesday that the United States is pushing Pakistan to fix "serious distortions" ahead of Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.

Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, conceded before a House panel that "if history is any guide," some fraud will occur. But he said a vibrant, though still restricted, media and international observers, including U.S. officials, will help curb cheating.

Lawmakers at the hearing criticized the Bush administration for its steadfast support of President Pervez Musharraf despite his suspension of the constitution and declaration of emergency rule last year, his purge of the judiciary and the arrests of thousands of opponents.

Boucher acknowledged "some serious distortions left on the process of the elections, with some things that still need to be corrected." He said the United States is doing everything it can to ensure a fair election, including preparing teams from the U.S. Embassy to monitor major races around the country. Close scrutiny, he said, will encourage better behavior.

Pakistani opposition leaders predict the elections will be rigged. They argue that election authorities, the judiciary and local government officials favor Musharraf's supporters.

The Bush administration has promoted Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, as a moderate leader able to hold together the nuclear-armed country. He has been a crucial U.S. ally in attempts to fight extremists along the country's rugged border with Afghanistan.

Lawmakers expressed concern that fraudulent elections could spark the kind of violence seen in Kenya, where fighting after a disputed Dec. 27 presidential vote has left hundreds dead.

"The potential for a flawed election to destabilize Pakistan is a real one," Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota said.

Lawmakers at the House National Security and Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing also suggested the Bush administration was not pushing Musharraf strongly enough to restore an independent judiciary. Boucher said that because of intense political disagreements over the judiciary, the situation probably would not be dealt with by Pakistani officials until after the elections.

Musharraf has said he declared emergency rule to prevent political chaos and to give authorities a freer hand against Islamic militants. Critics accuse him of making a power grab before the old Supreme Court could rule on the legality of his continuation in power.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan on Tuesday, hundreds of students protested their country's support for the United States, chanting "Death to America" and urging the government to end fighting in Pakistan's tribal areas.