Sharif, Bhutto to issue charter of demands for polls

Sharif, Bhutto to issue charter of demands for polls

Islamabad: Former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif said they would issue a list of demands to the government to dissuade them from boycotting Pakistan’s elections.

Showing unity, the two former prime ministers of the country agreed that preparations for 8 January parliamentary elections were flawed.

However, they did not declare an immediate boycott in protest against US-backed President Pervez Musharraf and did not clear the conditions for their participation in the polls.

“We reserve the right to boycott the elections at a later stage," Bhutto said at a joint press conference with Sharif. “The ball will be in the court of the regime," she said.

Like Bhutto, Sharif said he did not want to shun the vote, which the West hopes will produce a moderate government to keep this nuclear-armed nation stable as it battles rising Islamic militancy. But Sharif said: “These elections will be massively rigged because Musharraf’s survival lies in rigging it."

Opposition parties, enraged by Musharraf’s crackdown on dissent under the month-old emergency, argue that election authorities, the judiciary and local government officials are biased in favor of the president.

Musharraf and the United States have been urging the opposition parties to participate in the polls and not to derail an attempt to guide Pakistan back to democracy after eight years of military rule.

Shedding off his military uniform, Musharraf said there would be a level playing field in the vote for both Sharif and Bhutto. Sharif said a committee comprising four members each from their parties would draw up common demands within the next few days, setting a deadline for the authorities to comply, but gave no indication how much time they would give.

Coming out in the support of Sharif, Bhutto said she was very sad to know that Sharif’s nomination papers have been rejected by the authorities in Lahore.

Bhutto also said the authorities must release from house arrest judges ousted from the Supreme Court just as they were apparently poised to rule Musharraf’s continued rule illegal.

Sharif said earlier that he would tell an opposition alliance which he leads that “we should not only be fighting these elections, we should be fighting dictatorship with more vigor and determination."

A ruling party candidate for the National Assembly seat said that Sharif was ineligible for the election because of a conviction on charges related to the 1999 coup, in which Musharraf ousted his government.

He also complained about Sharif’s alleged default on a bank loan and an incident in 1997 in which Sharif’s supporters stormed the Supreme Court. Election official Raja Qamaruz Zaman said the objections had been “accepted," but gave no details.

Sharif said he was yet to decide whether to appeal the ruling or not, as doing so would be giving legitimacy to the existing judicial system. “These judges don’t owe their allegiance to the state but to Musharraf," he said.