Opposition may boycott vote in Pakistan
ISLAMABAD: Two major opposition political parties said Monday that they would probably boycott parliamentary elections in January if the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, persisted in holding the vote under emergency rule.
Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the largest opposition party, the Pakistan People's Party, has not definitively stated that she would pull out of the election.
But in a slightly tougher tone than she used Sunday, when she called the announcement of a date for elections a positive though insufficient step, Bhutto said Monday: "We cannot work with anyone who has suspended the Constitution, imposed emergency rule and oppressed the judiciary."
Therefore, she said, she would proceed Tuesday with a protest march from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad.
Raza Zafarul Haz, chairman of the Pakistani Muslim League, the party headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said that at a minimum, emergency rule would have to be lifted and fired judges would have to be reinstated for there to be free and fair elections.
"Under the current circumstances, it is very difficult to expect there will be fair elections in the country," Haz said. The party will make a decision in the coming week, he said.
Liaqat Baloch, secretary general of Pakistan's most popular Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islaami, said it was considering not fielding candidates if the emergency remained in place in January.
Bhutto also said Monday, "We are saying no to any more talks." But analysts said they believed she had not abandoned her original plan, devised with the backing of the U.S. administration, of seeking some kind of conciliation with Musharraf.
That prospect looked increasingly difficult after Musharraf announced Sunday that emergency rule, which he imposed more than a week ago, would prevail beyond the election.
As the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, which has traditionally garnered about one-third of the popular vote on a populist platform, Bhutto is walking a fine line, hoping to return to power while not seeming to be too close to the fiercely unpopular Musharraf.
Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan twice, and twice she was dismissed before completing her term. She has made no secret of the fact that she would like be prime minister again.
She remained closeted at a house in Lahore on Monday, meeting with party aides and planning strategy for the protest march across Pakistani Punjab.
In order to keep her people united under her banner, she has vowed to go ahead with the protest, which she is calling the Long March, even if the authorities try to shut it down. One aide said the party was not afraid of "a battlefield" between party workers and the police.
The chances of such a protest's being held along such an exposed route seem slim. On Friday, the government suppressed a planned rally by Bhutto in Rawalpindi, the city adjacent to the capital, before it started, and there were signs it would do the same with the Long March.
The authorities have two arguments against permitting Bhutto's demonstrations: that no protests are allowed under emergency rule, which is effectively martial law, and that Bhutto is a high-profile target for suicide bombers and other militants.
Some 140 people were killed last month in a bombing attack on her procession after she returned to Pakistan after eight years in self-exile.
One of Pakistan's major daily newspapers, The News, reported Monday that one of Musharraf's chief political operatives, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, who is also chief minister of Punjab, was optimistic that the general's party, the Pakistan Muslim League, was well placed to win in early January.
Musharraf has become increasingly unpopular in the past year as he has extended his dual role as head of the army and president far longer than expected.
But according to the newspaper, Elahi believed "a few hundred lawyers and a couple of dozens politicians behind bars" would not hurt their chances.
Western diplomats believe about 2,500 people, including lawyers and human rights advocates, have been jailed since emergency rule was imposed on Nov. 3.
The United States has given more than $10 billion in assistance to Pakistan since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, after which Musharraf pledged to become an ally in the campaign against terrorism. The majority of that aid has gone to the Pakistani military, including more than $5 billion to fight terrorism in Pakistan, an effort that Washington complains is not going well.
A tiny portion of the $10 billion packet - $26 million - has been provided to support democratic elections. But with no courts, a suppressed independent media and a lack of independent supervision of the election commission, such elections appear to be impossible.
Three days into the emergency rule last week, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, announced that $26 million was going toward voter education, computerization of voting rolls and the training of poll watchers. She said the last 80,000 of 430,000 transparent ballot boxes purchased for Pakistan by the United States and Japan would be delivered by Dec. 9.
Western officials said Monday that they did not know what would happen to the $26 million program if the elections proceeded under emergency rule.
David Rohde reported from Lahore.