Pakistan election campaign reaches end as nation awaits polls

(dpa) - Pakistani political parties were holding final campaign rallies Saturday ahead of crucial parliamentary elections as the government deployed more than 80,000 soldiers to maintain security.

"All the candidates will wind up their election campaigns by midnight and no public rallies or meetings will be allowed until the day-long polling concludes on Monday evening," Kunwar Dilshad, secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

The three major parties were set to hold public rallies in nearly every major city in country. Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, will address party workers in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, which has become a major battleground because it holds 148 of the 272 directly-elected seats in the National Assembly.

Despite the murder of Bhutto at a campaign rally on December 27, her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was predicted to sweep its traditional stronghold of Sindh, the second-largest of Pakistan's four provinces.

With Sindh in hand, the PPP is focusing on Punjab, where embattled President Pervez Musharraf's main political backers, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) and his bitter rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), also have a strong following.

But political workers and the public have in general shown less enthusiasm for this campaign, mainly due to Bhutto's death and a series of other suicide attacks that has killed around 1,000 people, including dozens at election rallies, in the past year.

On Saturday morning, suspected pro-Taliban militants blew up three polling stations in the tribal district of Bajaur. According to local security officials, 16 time-device bombs were used to destroy the buildings.

With around 80 million voters eligible to cast ballots for national and local parliaments, the government had deployed 81,000 Army soldiers in addition to provincial police forces, all of whom have been given shoot-on-sight orders against agitators.

However, the Army is only on standby and will not mobilize unless there is serious election-related violence, the English-language News cited the chief military spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, as saying.

The military deployment followed threats by opposition parties to launch mass street protests if the elections were rigged in favour of Musharraf's political backers. But the embattled president has threatened to put down any post-poll protests with force.

According to independent opinion surveys, the ruling PML-Q is lagging far behind with only 14 per cent support among voters, while the PPP was polling at nearly 50 per cent of Nawaz's PML-N was second with 22 per cent.

On Friday, the US-based Human Rights Watch released an audio recording of Attorney-General Malik Mohammed Qayyum, a close aide of Musharraf, in which he allegedly talked about plans to rig the elections.

In the recording, Qayyum allegedly stated that Monday's elections would be "massively rigged," the group claimed in a statement. Qayyum denied the claims, saying the recording was faked as part of a conspiracy against him.

The prospect of rigging has raised concerns among the international community, which has dispatched hundreds of observers to the country.

An influential US lawmaker and a member of the US election monitoring team, Senator Joseph Biden, said Friday he would recommend that Congress cut Pakistan's military aid if the elections were rigged. Biden heads the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Analysts believe that Monday's vote could determine the political survival of Musharraf, whose popularity is at its lowest since he seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1999, as a hostile incoming civilian government could move to impeach him.

Musharraf is a key ally of the United States in its global war on terrorism.

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