Bhutto still open to election boycott

Islamabad(DPA) : Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto Friday did not rule out joining other opposition leaders in boycotting forthcoming parliamentary elections after President Pervez Musharraf kept a state of emergency in place.

Musharraf, who resigned as army chief Wednesday and was sworn in for another five-year term as president the next morning, told the nation during a televised address Thursday night that the emergency would not be lifted before Dec 16.

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That date is significant because it is one day after the deadline for the withdrawal of nomination papers.

The move appeared to be a signal to opposition forces that the state of emergency would remain in place indefinitely if they pulled out of the Jan 8 elections.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, has said that an alliance of more than 30 political parties would skip the elections if Musharraf did not reinstall around 60 Supreme Court and high court judges he sacked after invoking emergency measures on Nov 3.

But Bhutto said she was yet to sit down with alliance members to discuss the wisdom of a boycott. In October, she also returned home from exile under a deal with Musharraf to share power but has since demanded his resignation.

“For the moment we are making preparation for the elections but if the opposition agrees on a common agenda and objective then we can reconsider our decision,” she told a press conference at her Islamabad residence.

Unveiling the election manifesto of her Pakistan Peoples Party, Bhutto claimed there were credible reports that the government was setting up fake polling stations in an effort to rig the vote.

“The upcoming elections have no legitimacy because they are not held under a neutral caretaker government and by an independent election commission,” she said. “We are only participating under protest.”

Bowing to demands of his domestic opponents and chief international backer, the administration of US President George W Bush, Musharraf this week shed his military uniform, confirmed an election date and indicated he would lift the state of emergency.

Taking a swipe at his opponents, the media and critical Western governments during separate public addresses Thursday, Musharraf said he had fulfilled his promises and accused the deposed judges of conspiring to “derail the democratic process.”

He also claimed his security forces in the country’s northwest region had “broken the back” of armed Islamic militants, whose recent alarming territorial gains were ostensibly the reason behind Musharraf’s initiation of a state of emergency.

The US sees Musharraf as a crucial ally in fighting Taliban and Al Qaeda forces that are regrouping along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, and has urged him to return the country to democracy to ensure domestic stability.

Sharif rejected Musharraf’s pledge to rescind emergency rule, saying the real issue was “restoration of the judiciary to its pre-Nov 3 status.”

“We will boycott the sham election,” Sharif told reporters after Musharraf addressed the nation.

Some analysts say Sharif is pressing for a boycott because he may be barred from standing due to his conviction on charges of hijacking and treason in 2000, and that his Pakistan Muslim League-N would not fair well in the polls.

A larger boycott by a united opposition could jeopardize the credibility of the elections, which Musharraf wants to go smoothly to show to his Western backers that the nuclear-armed state was safe in his care.