Bhutto and Sharif split on poll boycott

Pakistan’s main opposition leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, on Friday appeared divided over whether to boycott parliamentary elections due on January 8, damaging opposition hopes for a united front against President Pervez Musharraf.

Leaders of Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) said Mr Sharif would meet key opposition leaders, including Ms Bhutto, in the next few days in an attempt to broaden support for a boycott that would demolish General Musharraf’s hopes of overseeing a smooth transition from military government to a civilian regime.

Mr Sharif announced a boycott on Thursday night on behalf of the APDM (All Parties Democratic Movement) alliance. But Ms Bhutto said on Friday her party would contest the elections, and issued a manifesto focusing on “employment, education, equality, energy and the environment”.

She said later that she might reconsider her decision to contest the election if the opposition parties could agree a joint agenda. “If we think elections are not the solution, then we all need to sit down and see what the solution can be,’’ she told reporters in Islamabad. “If we can agree on a united agenda, we can certainly review our decision to contest.’’

Analysts said that a failure by Gen Musharraf to persuade a majority of the opposition to take part in the elections would risk re-igniting protests from a diverse community of pro-democracy activists including lawyers and journalists.

“Gen Musharraf cannot afford to have this electoral process become discredited. At stake is his entire promise to take Pakistan through a relatively peaceful transition to more democracy,” said Mudassir Rizvi, national co-ordinator of the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), an independent Pakistani election monitoring group.

“If most political parties go along with these elections, only then will they be seen as credible.”

Leaders of Ms Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s party (PPP) said she had chosen to contest only under protest and after noting a litany of complaints against the election process, such as reports that the names of many PPP voters were missing from voters’ lists in some of the party’s safest constituencies.

“We are preparing for this election but only under protest. We can’t accept the validity of these elections unless our complaints are adequately addressed,” said Abida Hussain, a key PPP leader.

Siddique-ul-Farooq, a leader of Mr Sharif’s party, said: “We are convinced that elections under Musharraf cannot be free or fair. In constituencies where our candidates are likely to take a lead, bogus votes have already been prepared in favour of pro-Musharraf candidates to defeat our candidates.”

Gen Musharraf announced on Thursday, after taking the presidential oath as a civilian, that he would lift a nationwide state of emergency on December 16, after almost six weeks. Under emergency rule, civil liberties such as the right to free speech have been suspended, while political parties are barred from organising political meetings in public.

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