Former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif said Monday they would issue a list of demands that the government must fulfill to dissuade them from boycotting Pakistan’s elections.
In a show of unity, the opposition leaders said they agreed that the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections would not be free and fair under current conditions — Pakistan has been under emergency rule for a month. Earlier Monday, election officials rejected Sharif’s candidacy.
Bhutto and Sharif stopped short of announcing an immediate boycott to protest U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf’s continued rule and were vague about their common demands.
“We reserve the right to boycott the elections at a later stage,” Bhutto said at a news conference with Sharif after talks at her residence in the capital — the first meeting between the two since their recent return from exile. “The ball will be in the court of the regime.”
Sharif said he, like Bhutto, 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 he said: “This atmosphere doesn’t seem to lead toward free and fair elections.”
Sharif said a committee comprising four members each from their parties would draw up demands within the next few days. He said they would set a deadline for authorities to comply, but gave no indication how much time they would give.
“These elections will be massively rigged because Mr. Musharraf’s survival lies in rigging it,” Sharif predicted.
Opposition parties, enraged by Musharraf’s crackdown on dissent under the emergency, argue that election authorities, the judiciary and local government officials are biased in favor of the president’s supporters.
Musharraf and the United States are urging them to take part and not derail an attempt to guide Pakistan back toward democracy after eight years of military rule. Bhutto says she is reluctant to hand pro-Musharraf parties a guaranteed election victory.
Bhutto said she was “very sad” that elections officials in Sharif’s home city of Lahore rejected his nomination papers. If upheld, the decision could dash his hopes of winning a third term as prime minister.
No demand to reinstate judges
She also said authorities must release from house arrest the judges ousted from the Supreme Court just as they were apparently poised to rule against Musharraf’s continued presidency.
However, neither she nor Sharif mentioned a key demand of Musharraf’s most vociferous critics — that the judges be restored to their posts.
Sharif said earlier Monday that he would tell an opposition alliance which he leads that “we should now be fighting these elections, we should be fighting dictatorship with more vigor and determination.”
A ruling party candidate for the National Assembly seat that Sharif is listed to contest had complained that the former prime minister was ineligible for the election because of a conviction on charges related to the 1999 coup, in which Musharraf ousted Sharif’s 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 did not elaborate.
Sharif said he had not decided whether to appeal the ruling, saying to do so would be to give the courts legitimacy.
“These judges don’t owe their allegiance to the state but to Mr. Musharraf,” he told reporters after meeting with visiting Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
Earlier Monday in Lahore, Sharif met with U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson, who urged all opposition parties to take part in the elections.
Patterson reiterated U.S. calls for the lifting of curbs on the media and the freeing of all political detainees — thousands of Musharraf’s critics were rounded up under the emergency, though most have been freed.
Musharraf retired as army chief and took the oath as a civilian president last week. At his inauguration, he said there would be a level playing field in the vote for both Sharif and Bhutto.