Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto launched her election campaign in troubled northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, a day after unveiling her party’s platform despite calls from other opposition groups to boycott the Jan. 8 vote.
Bhutto traveled in a bulletproof black Mercedes under police escort from the capital, Islamabad, to Peshawar where she appealed for support from ethnic Pashtuns predominant in the border region assailed by Islamic militancy.
She was greeted by hundreds of flag-waving supporters of her Pakistan People’s Party who chanted “Long Live Benazir!”
“I ask our Pashtun brothers to come forward for peace. They have supported the Pakistan People’s Party in the past and once again they must support the Pakistan People’s Party,” she said.
“The Pakistan People’s Party will give them security, peace and employment and will bring development to their areas so their problems can be solved.”
Bhutto, a two-time prime minister whose return to Pakistan from exile in October was targeted by suicide bombers, is the first major political leader to launch a campaign since President Pervez Musharraf quit his army post and became a civilian leader this past week.
She told party activists that her party would take part in the parliamentary elections despite reiterating that she had received information that the authorities planned to rig the vote.
“There are many hurdles in the way of free and fair elections, but we are not afraid of them, and we are sure that the courage and strength of our party workers will overcome these obstacles,” she told the cheering crowd.
Kickstart to election campaign
Peshawar, about 100 miles west of Islamabad, is far from her political heartland in southern Pakistan. The city near the Afghan border is a stronghold of Islamic groups who currently control the provincial government, and many conservative Pashtuns do not look favorably on the participation of women in politics.
Bhutto, whose pro-Western outlook also could make her unpopular among Pashtun voters, made her first stop at the home of a party activist to express condolences over the recent death of his father. Dozens of police, some with metal detectors, guarded the area, and commandos with rifles were positioned on rooftops.
Party spokesman Farhatullah Babar said she will also meet with party leaders to discuss how to ensure the success of their candidates.
“This visit to Peshawar kickstarts her election campaign,” Babar said.
Under pressure from the United States and domestic opposition parties, Musharraf says he is trying to engineer a transition to democracy, eight years after he seized power in a coup, but remains deeply unpopular in Pakistan.
He has urged political parties to fully participate in the vote, but former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of a key opposition coalition, says he intends to boycott the elections unless Musharraf reinstates judges he ousted on Nov. 3 when he declared a state of emergency.
Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif are due to meet Monday in Islamabad to discuss a possible joint boycott of the January ballot, Raja Zafarul Haq, chairman of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party told reporters.
Sharif's brother not allowed to run
Meanwhile, in a move that may strengthen calls for a boycott, the electoral commission on Saturday rejected the candidacy of Sharif’s politician brother Shahbaz Sharif. It said Shahbaz had defaulted on a bank loan and was allegedly involved in a murder case in 1998 while chief minister of Punjab province.
Shahbaz Sharif intends to run for the National Assembly and a provincial legislature.
But Bhutto says she would only boycott the vote if all opposition parties do the same. But by unveiling her party’s policies on Friday and now starting her campaign she has signaled an intent to participate — reviving speculation she could cooperate with Musharraf if her party wins the election.
Her campaign platform promises more money for education, health and environmental protection, and cheap loans to help small businesses create jobs.
Musharraf — who was sworn in Thursday for a new five-year presidential term — has announced he intends to lift the state of emergency by Dec. 16 and restore the constitution before the elections.
However, he has said the deposed judges — who were axed as they were about to issue a ruling that could have derailed his new term — will not be reinstated.
In an interview with ABC aired Friday, Musharraf defended his use of emergency powers and suggested he might quit if the elections turned out badly for him.
Asked about the chances of him sharing power with Bhutto, Musharraf said he would have to see “how things develop.”
“I have all the choices. If the situation develops in a manner which is absolutely unacceptable to me, I have the choice of leaving,” he said.