WASHINGTON - Despite assurances to the Bush administration that it will allow unrestricted international monitoring of crucial Feb. 18 elections, Pakistan is refusing to permit observers to conduct exit polls, an important method of detecting fraud.
The United States and other powers see a fair vote in Pakistan as a chance to stabilize the country, which has been under eight years of army rule and is racked by an al Qaida-backed Islamic insurgency, ethnic tensions and a political crisis fueled by the Dec. 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
"The elections need to be free and fair, and be seen as free and fair," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Thursday in Davos, Switzerland.
Privately, Pakistani officials have assured the Bush administration that U.S. and European Union monitoring teams will have free access to election sites and won't be subject to the extensive restrictions that Pakistani election officials outlined last month, U.S. officials said.
But Pakistan is refusing to reconsider a regulation that bars monitors from conducting exit polls, said Lorne W. Craner, the president of the International Republican Institute, a U.S. democracy promotion group that planned to send dozens of election monitors to Pakistan.
"It's very unusual not to be able to do an exit poll," said Craner, explaining that such surveys provide an independent means of verifying official election results.
"An exit poll or a parallel vote tabulation is an extra assurance of the legitimacy of the election," he said.
A potentially bigger issue is whether the IRI will even organize monitoring in light of the risks to Americans in Pakistan. Americans have been the frequent targets of attacks by Islamic insurgents allied with al Qaida and Taliban extremists from Afghanistan, and Craner said the IRI has a "very big" concern with security.
Moreover, Pakistani officials have warned that insurgent groups, which have been infiltrating the country's heartland from remote tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, could disrupt the elections with attacks on polling stations and security forces.
The ban on exit polling is likely to fuel fears of fraud, which also are bolstered by questions about the legitimacy of voter lists and Musharraf's decision that disputes be resolved by the federal election commission instead of by the courts. The commission is widely seen as being packed with Musharraf's cronies.
Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and other opposition groups say they're convinced the government will rig the polls in favor of Musharraf's political allies, although he stepped down as army chief in December.
Musharraf, hailed by President Bush as a close U.S. ally in fighting terrorism, is despised in Pakistan for making constitutional changes that are widely deemed illegal and for purging independent judges to preserve his power.
Ending a European tour aimed at reassuring the international community of his commitment to restoring democracy, Musharraf said Friday that "the elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful."
"Any bugs in the system that could be manipulated have been removed by me and the election officials," he asserted in a speech to a defense institute in London.
In fact, Pakistan has lifted some of the restrictions it had imposed when the elections were to be held on Jan. 8. They included notifying Pakistani authorities in advance of the polling stations and ballot-counting centers that the monitors planned to visit.
Pakistani officials have told their American counterparts that the observers "can go unannounced to any polling site," said an administration official, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
© McClatchy Newspapers 2008