Pakistan's President Promises Voting Will Be Free and Fair

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf pledged Thursday that next week's elections would be free, fair and held on time, after political opponents accused him of planning to rig the vote so that he could maintain his grip on power.

He vowed to deal sternly with anyone who tried to disrupt the electoral process.

"Despite all rumors, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful," Musharraf told a gathering of intellectuals in the capital, Islamabad.

The retired army general, who seized power in a 1999 coup and went on to become a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, has said Monday's vote for a new parliament was a crucial step in the country's transition to democratic rule.

His presidency is not being contested, but a convincing opposition win -- as forecast in recent polls -- could leave him vulnerable to impeachment.

That has sparked rumors that the government may seek an excuse to delay the vote or annul the results.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a leading opposition politician, was among those who accused Musharraf of planning to rig the election. "We stand for democracy. He stands for dictatorship," Sharif said as he traveled in his armor-plated SUV to a raucous campaign rally on Wednesday attended by about 7,000 supporters in the northern town of Kahuta. "In order to survive, he has to rig the election. He knows that."

He accused the government of buying votes and readying 1.8 million postal ballots to be cast in favor of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party -- allegations denied by officials -- and warned that if the ruling party won, it would lead to "uncontrollable" unrest.