Pakistan plans to hold national elections in May
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (file)
By Munir Ahmed
Pakistan plans to hold landmark national elections in May, the country's information minister said Tuesday. The vote would mark the first time a civilian government completed a full five-year term in the country and transferred power through the ballot box.
Previous governments have either been deposed in army coups or dismissed by presidents allied with the generals. That history has led to fervent speculation in the past few years about whether the government would make it to the finish line this time around.
Despite repeated predictions that the government would be forced to call early elections because of political pressure, it now appears the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party will serve out its full term, which expires in March.
Elections must be held within 90 days after the end of the term under the guidance of an interim government installed by the ruling coalition.
"God willing, the elections will be held in May," Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore.
The government has repeatedly said elections will be held on time, but Kaira's comments were the first indication of an actual timeframe.
The army remains the most powerful institution in Pakistan, but the past few years have seen an erosion of its authority as it has been bogged down in a bloody war against the Pakistani Taliban. The country's civilian politicians and judges have taken advantage of this scenario to carve out more power for themselves - a struggle that has often been accompanied by controversy.
An international human rights organization criticized Pakistan's top judges on Tuesday for trying to prevent media criticism of the judiciary by threatening contempt of court proceedings, which can bring prison terms.
"Judges sworn to uphold the rule of law should not be using their broad contempt powers to muzzle criticism by the media," said Brad Adams, Asia director at US-based Human Rights Watch.
"Judges have no special immunity from criticism. Unless they want to be seen as instruments of coercion and censorship, they should immediately revoke these curbs on free expression," Adams said.
Private media outlets have mushroomed in Pakistan in recent years, bringing greater criticism of all branches of government.
The high courts in Islamabad and Lahore have both issued orders to stop the broadcast of television programs critical of the judiciary within the past two months, said the New York-based group.
"No branch of government, including the courts, should be immune from public opinion in a democratic society," Adams said. "Pakistan's judges have demonstrated the independence to hold the government accountable. But their credibility will be lost so long as they fight against scrutiny and accountability of the judiciary itself."
The Pakistani Taliban have also targeted the media.
The militant group claimed responsibility Tuesday for a failed assassination attempt against a prominent Pakistani TV anchor. Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan said the group targeted Geo TV's Hamid Mir because he was "promoting secular forces."
The bomb was found underneath Mir's car in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, on Monday and was defused by police.
The Taliban threatened Mir and other journalists last month because the group was unhappy with their coverage of a schoolgirl activist shot by the militants.
The Taliban shot 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai in the head for criticizing the militants and promoting girls' education. She is currently recovering in Britain.
Ahsan, the Taliban spokesman, said they will target Mir again and other journalists opposed by the militants. He spoke to The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.