Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's opposition party decided Sunday to run in next month's parliamentary elections, a move that may encourage other members of Pakistan's largest opposition coalition to participate.
Sharif had threatened to boycott the vote, which is supposed to bring democracy back to Pakistan after eight years of military rule, because of President Pervez Musharraf's imposition of a state of emergency on Nov. 3.
He and other opposition leaders have argued that the caretaker government, local officials and the judiciary — which has been purged of independent-minded judges under the emergency — will favor pro-Musharraf candidates.
The opposition coalition of 33 parties and political groups met throughout the day in the eastern city of Lahore, but could not agree on whether to contest the Jan. 8 vote or stay away in protest.
In the end, the All Parties Democratic Movement decided members should be allowed to choose for themselves if they will contest the seats or not.
The decision was influenced by announcements from the Pakistan People's Party of Benazir Bhutto and other groups that they will compete in the crucial elections.
"Since we could not reach any agreement with People's Party and they are contesting polls, we cannot leave the field open," said Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party.
Some still urging boycott
Iqbal said several parties — including the right-wing Jamat-e-Islami party, several nationalist parties and the party of former cricket star Imran Khan — were still pressing for a boycott.
"By going to the polls, in fact we will give legitimacy to Pervez Musharraf and his illegal acts," said Syed Munawar Hasan, secretary general of Jamat-e-Islami.
A large boycott would undermine Musharraf's efforts to legitimize the new presidential term he won in October in a vote by a Parliament stacked with his supporters. U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson has repeatedly urged all opposition parties to take part in the elections.
Despite the dissension on the issue, Raja Zafarul Haq, chairman of Sharif's party, said the opposition coalition remains committed to fight what they call Musharraf's dictatorship. The former army general, who stepped down from his military position last month, imposed a state of emergency Nov. 3 that is supposed to be lifted next weekend and dismissed most Supreme Court judges, replacing them with jurists more loyal to him.
"Opposition parties can take different paths but their aim is common — rule of law and get rid of dictatorship," Haq said.
He said Sharif will start trying to mobilize the masses by visiting Faisalabad, Karachi and other parts of the country in the coming days.
"This is the most effective way to pressure this government; to restore judges, restore the Constitution," Haq said.
Ongoing talks on a list of preconditions for opposition participation between Nawaz's and Bhutto's parties are deadlocked over the key demand that Musharraf reinstate the judges he sacked and detained.
His hand-picked replacements on the court immediately dismissed all complaints against Musharraf's re-election, allowing him to take the oath of office for another five-year term.
Sharif's party earlier had favored a boycott unless the judges are reinstated, but Bhutto says the new Parliament should decide the issue.
Suicide bomber kills 8
Elsewhere in Pakistan, a suicide bomber killed eight people by ramming his explosives-laden car into a police outpost in the scenic northern valley of Swat, where government forces have been battling to regain control of towns lost to Islamic insurgents. The dead included two children, three civilians and three police officers.
It was the latest in a series of suicide attacks on members of the security forces in the past year.
Musharraf had cited the stepped-up militancy in northern regions like Swat in imposing the state of emergency — a move critics said was actually designed to silence opposition forces weary of his eight-year rule.