Ishaq Zafar, president of the Pakistan Peoples Party in Kashmir and a loyalist of Benazir Bhutto, the exiled former prime minister, said: "The election won't be free and fair because the Pakistan government is openly interfering in it."

Azad Kashmir, or Free Pakistan, as Pakistan calls its part of the land divided with India, has always been regarded as a client state of Islamabad, despite having its own president, prime minister and constitution.

Zafar said Pervez Musharraf's overt support for the ruling conservative All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference had violated the notion of independence.

"What else is it, other than pre-poll rigging, that General Musharraf met leaders of one party and personally asked voters to elect its candidates?"

But Sardar Atiq Khan, the Muslim Conference president who is expected to be the next prime minister of Pakistani Kashmir, said the allegations were unjust.

"We are ruling with a two-thirds majority. We served the masses so they will give us another chance and vote us in again."

Quake survivors

Tuesday's election to the 41-seat legislature comes nine months after an earthquake killed more than 73,000 people in Kashmir and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and rendered three million homeless.

Many people are still in dire
straits after last year's quake

People in the stricken capital, Muzaffarabad, and other towns are still waiting for planning permission to build new homes, while rents and land prices have soared, and many people remain without jobs.

Survivors want a new government to speed up reconstruction and rehabilitation.

The legislature that emerges will not represent Kashmiris who want complete independence from Pakistan and India.

About 37 pro-independence candidates, mostly from Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, were barred from contesting after refusing to declare support for Kashmir's eventual accession to Pakistan - a requirement under electoral rules.