Pakistan opposition discusses possible election boycott


Islamabad : Pakistan’s key opposition leaders planned to meet Monday to discuss boycotting the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections to protest continued emergency rule by embattled President Pervez Musharraf.

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Former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were due to meet here Monday night at the request of Sharif, who is trying to rally opposition forces for a total election boycott.

Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was also scheduled to meet another opposition figure, Fazal ur Rehman, president of the Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam Party.

Sharif, who returned last month from exile in Saudi Arabia, has been trying to persuade Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to join an alliance of more than 30 parties in boycotting the Jan 8 polls.

But Bhutto, who herself returned from self-exile in October under a deal with Musharraf to share power but later denounced him for declaring emergency measures Nov 3, has been hedging her bets.

While saying the PPP reserved the right to withdraw from the polls if it appeared they were being rigged, the opposition leader has unveiled her party’s election manifesto and began campaigning in earnest during the weekend in the country’s volatile northwest region.

Sharif own party has also been preparing for the polls even while saying they would not participate until Musharraf reinstated dozens of judges fired after he declared the emergency.

PML-N officials have conceded that a boycott was not likely to happen unless Bhutto’s PPP joined them, and analysts say they fully expect the opposition to run for seats in the national and regional legislatures.

A large-scale boycott would likely plunge Pakistan back into the political abyss that it appeared to be emerging from in recent days.

Under mounting domestic pressure and badgering from his chief foreign sponsor, the US, Musharraf resigned as army chief of staff, was sworn in to a new term as a civilian president, confirmed the election date and indicated that the state of emergency would be lifted in a few weeks.

The 64-year-old former general, who seized power in a coup in 1999, had suspended the constitution, locked up thousands of political opponents and pro-democracy groups, fired dozens of Supreme Court and high court judges, and gagged local and international media.

The US considers Musharraf a critical ally in fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which have regrouped along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, and is seeking stability in the nation by pushing for a return to democratic rule.