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Sharif won't boycott Pakistan vote

The ex-premier earlier said his party would sit out if deposed judges weren't reinstated.

December 10, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

KARACHI, PAKISTAN — Bending to political realities, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif abandoned his threat to boycott next month's parliamentary elections, agreeing Sunday to allow his party to compete in the Jan. 8 vote aimed at restoring democratic rule.

His decision means both major opposition parties, the other headed by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, will contest the vote.

But the move marks an embarrassing, if not unexpected, about-face for Sharif. The two-time prime minister had insisted his party would not put up candidates unless President Pervez Musharraf reinstated the judges fired Nov. 3, when he suspended the constitution and imposed emergency rule.

Restoring the former judiciary has been the central demand of lawyers, judges and students who have been at the forefront of small but tenacious demonstrations against Musharraf.

Musharraf has said the deposed judges will not be allowed back on the bench. He has promised to lift the state of emergency by Dec. 16, a move welcomed by Pakistan's major Western allies but one that domestic critics say does not go far enough to restore legitimacy to the electoral process.

Some of the country's most senior lawyers and judges remain in jail or under house arrest, and Sharif had been the most prominent politician to threaten a boycott if they were not reinstated before the vote. But he was unable to persuade Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party, to join him in sitting out the election.

Faced with the prospect of the myriad opposition parties exploiting his absence from the campaign, Sharif bowed to pressure from candidates within his party who are eager to run.

"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, speaking after Sharif chaired a six-hour meeting with 32 other minor opposition parties that ended without a consensus on whether to boycott.

Both main opposition leaders have said, without providing proof, that they believe the election will be rigged in favor of parties loyal to Musharraf. But Bhutto has said that she prefers to contest the election, while reserving the right to bring her supporters into the streets in protest afterward if there is evidence that the vote was unfair. She says the fate of the judges should be dealt with only after the free election of a new parliament.

Musharraf supporters celebrated Sharif's decision, arguing that the participation of the two main opposition parties certifies the legitimacy of the election.

The country's election commission has barred Sharif from running as a candidate, citing a criminal conviction from 1999 when, as prime minister, he tried unsuccessfully to stave off the coup that brought Musharraf to power.

But most analysts here say the participation of Sharif's party will take votes from Musharraf backers, thereby boosting Bhutto's prospects of becoming prime minister.

Sharif, however, now leaves the lawyers movement largely abandoned in its confrontation with Musharraf. Just a day earlier, a national convention of bar association leaders had called on political parties to boycott the election. With many of Pakistan's most senior lawyers in jail or under house arrest, the lawyers and human rights activists have emerged as the conscience of the anti-Musharraf forces.

The decision by the two main parties to run has stoked a sense that Pakistani politics remains in the grip of long-standing personal rivalries and power struggles.

"Benazir's party became popular by confronting the establishment, not compromising with it," says Iqbal Haider, a lawyer who heads Pakistan's Human Rights Commission and was a justice minister under Bhutto. "Musharraf was totally isolated, and a boycott would have been the end of him.

"Now they have given him a life-saving injection instead of the kiss of death."


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