Pakistan faces scrutiny from Congress on eve of election

Three prominent senators are traveling to Pakistan to observe its parliamentary elections Monday amid growing interest by Democrats to use the power of the purse to push the country toward democratization.

The elections’ outcome will play a critical role in Congress’s approach toward Pakistan, a crisis-racked ally that is still reeling after the assassination of opposition leader and ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last December.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, together with senior panel members John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), will observe the elections on Feb. 18. Their trip also includes visits to Afghanistan, India and Turkey.

Congressional leaders find themselves in a tough spot on Pakistan — a crucial but troubled partner in the Afghanistan war and the broader war on terrorism. While some Democrats want to impose tougher restrictions on aid to President Pervez Musharraf’s regime, they also acknowledge that turning their backs on Pakistan could imperil the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and interests in the region.

At the same time, lawmakers have been pressuring Musharraf to ensure free and fair elections. Musharraf last November suspended the constitution and assumed emergency powers under a provisional order, which also required the country’s judges to take a new oath of office.

When the chief justice refused to do so and was joined by seven of his colleagues, Musharraf appointed his own justices.

The resulting political turmoil took a sharp turn for the worse in December, when Bhutto was killed in an apparent suicide attack.

Britain’s Scotland Yard conducted the investigation into Bhutto’s death, concluding that the force of a suicide blast, not gunfire, killed Bhutto. The report also said that a lone attacker fired shots at Bhutto before detonating explosives.

After the assassination, Pakistan’s leaders postponed the elections from Jan. 7 until Feb. 18. But they restricted the ability of international monitors to oversee the election and conduct exit polls. The International Republican Institute (IRI), which had previously planned to send dozens of election monitors to Pakistan, has now decided against it.

In an e-mail statement to The Hill, Kerry wrote: “It is crucial to the future of Pakistan and the region that these elections are free, fair, and transparent, and our delegation will not only observe the elections closely, but will meet with the region’s leaders and ask tough questions about the way forward.”

Other lawmakers in recent days have sounded alarm over Pakistan’s decision. Thirteen House Democrats, including Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), sent a letter this week to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her to encourage Musharraf to allow international monitoring of the elections.

“According to the latest opinion polls, 75 percent of Pakistanis want President Musharraf to step down immediately,” the lawmakers wrote. “With the elections for the new Parliament one week away, President Musharraf has an obvious incentive to manipulate the elections in order to produce a parliament supportive of him.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee that determines foreign aid for Pakistan, also wrote a letter to Rice, urging her to ensure that “any U.S. reaction to the elections next week will include full disclosure of any serious irregularities.”

For its part, Pakistan’s embassy in Washington has embarked on an intense public relations campaign to allay widespread concern that the elections will not be fair.

“We welcome observers and journalists from across the world to witness this historic process,” said Ambassador Mahmud Ali Durrani at a press conference last week. He added that a European Union mission will issue a preliminary assessment within three days and a final report two months later.

According to Durrani, 600,000 polling officials have received training under the supervision of international experts, ballot boxes will be tamper-proof and transparent, and field offices will have 300,000 portable voting screens.

U.S. embassy officials in Pakistan are also going to observe the elections, said several U.S. sources.

Meanwhile, Biden has introduced a non-binding resolution calling for an independent investigation into Bhutto’s death; free and fair elections; a release of political prisoners; and a revocation of the recent restrictions placed on the press and free speech.

Biden is also calling on the White House to review all foreign aid to Pakistan to make sure that all assistance is being used “to promote democracy and prevent the rise of violent fundamentalism in Pakistan.” Biden’s resolution is sponsored by eight other Democratic senators, including presidential hopeful Barack Obama (Ill.).

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