Pakistan's Election Commission said Tuesday that opposition leader Nawaz Sharif cannot run in parliamentary elections next month, eliminating the former prime minister's chances of returning to office.
The decision leaves Sharif with no further avenue for appeal and denies him a platform in parliament to continue his campaign against his archrival, President Pervez Musharraf, who ousted him in a 1999 coup.
Sharif's party blasted the decision as an attempt to sideline one of the leading threats to Musharraf before the Jan. 8 elections, which Western governments hope will produce a government stable enough to fight Islamic extremism.
"This also shows that they are still afraid of his popularity and cannot face him," spokesman Ahsan Iqbal said. "This also shows that there is no level playing field in these elections."
The Election Commission, which was appointed by Musharraf, had not been expected to overturn a decision by a local election official to disqualify Sharif based on his alleged involvement in a corruption case and charges against him relating to the 1999 coup against him.
Sharif has been leading his Pakistan Muslim League-N's parliamentary campaigning and demanding that Musharraf restore Supreme Court judges fired during a 42-day state of emergency that ended over the weekend.
Sharif's party decided against an election boycott after failing to muster support from other opposition groups for a united action, and the party did not announce any change in the wake of the Election Commission decision.
Musharraf's election promises
However, a coalition of some of the smaller anti-Musharraf groups, including Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest Islamic party, said Tuesday it will go ahead with plans to boycott the vote, saying it will not be fair unless the judges are reinstated, restrictions on civil liberties Musharraf put in place under the emergency are revoked, and he resigns.
Sharif was exiled to Saudi Arabia and Britain after his ouster by Musharraf. Like Benazir Bhutto, another two-time former prime minister, Sharif returned home to be involved in the elections.
The commission rejected Sharif's appeal Monday, commission spokesman Kanwar Dilshad said. The chief election commissioner also rejected a separate appeal by Sharif's politician brother, Shahbaz Sharif, of the rejection of his nomination for the balloting, Dilshad said.
Dilshad declined to give details, confirming only a report in the Urdu-language Jang daily Tuesday that the Sharifs were out of the elections.
Bhutto praises, criticizes Musharraf
Addressing an election rally in the southern city of Mirpur Khas, Bhutto said the outgoing government, run by pro-Musharraf parties, "has given only terrorism, unemployment and inflation to this country."
"Give a push to this falling wall. Will you support me?" she called out.
Some 7,000 supporters bellowed "Yes!"
Bhutto praised Musharraf for keeping promises to quit his post as army chief and hold elections on time, but she said the real test would be whether the elections were fair.
"We will see on Jan. 8 whether this promise is fulfilled or not," she said.
Musharraf said curbing militancy was the chief reason he imposed a state of emergency Nov. 3, though he used it to crack down on dissent and purge the judiciary in his favor.
Musharraf has promised that the elections will be free and transparent, and has said allegations of rigging were an attempt by the opposition to create an excuse in case they fare poorly at the ballot box.