November 30, 2007
Pg. 16 Opposition Coalition To Boycott January Vote
By Pamela Constable, Washington Post Foreign Service
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 29 -- President Pervez Musharraf announced Thursday that he intended to lift emergency rule and restore the constitution by Dec. 16, saying he had fulfilled his promise to bring democracy to Pakistan and calling on political parties to participate in January elections.
But Musharraf, who was sworn in as the civilian president one day after stepping down as chief of Pakistan's army, did not say he would reinstate the senior judges he fired this month -- a key demand of several major political parties as well as the country's legal advocates and journalists.
Late Thursday, in an immediate rebuff to Musharraf, a major opposition coalition announced that it planned to boycott the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections, saying the president had not gone far enough to restore democratic rights. The coalition includes the party headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
"We have taken this decision . . . because we don't see the chance of a free and fair election under the prevailing circumstances," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a major religious party. He said all coalition candidates would withdraw their nominations.
Sharif said he would ask his main rival, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, to join the boycott. But Bhutto was quoted on Pakistani television as saying a boycott would "accomplish nothing."
Plans for a boycott could set up a confrontation with Musharraf and threaten to discredit the elections. In his speech, Musharraf said he would not tolerate "destabilizing" activities, hinting that such problems could lead to a new crackdown.
"The elections will be held according to the constitution. Do not try to stop them," he said in a 20-minute televised address to the nation. He said that he had created a "level playing field" for all parties and candidates -- mentioning Bhutto and Sharif by name -- and that it was their "duty" to participate in the elections.
It was far from clear whether Bhutto, the charismatic Pakistan People's Party leader who returned from voluntary exile last month, would agree to join forces with her longtime rival. Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League, was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999 and returned triumphantly last weekend from a forced exile.
The two politicians, both of whom registered as candidates for Parliament this week, have been sniping at each other nonstop. Sharif has taken a hard line on Musharraf, while Bhutto has favored conciliation. Analysts said Musharraf has been counting on the divisions between them to weaken the opposition's standing at the polls.
Musharraf, who took the oath as president wearing a formal black civilian tunic, told his guests at the presidential palace, and later the national TV audience, that he was proud of his efforts to bring democracy, economic stability and social progress to Pakistan. He said that his plans had been "derailed by a conspiracy," making it necessary for him to impose the emergency, but that now the transition was "back on track."
"I have fulfilled my promise to bring democracy," he said in his TV address. "I left the position of army chief. I took the oath as a civilian president. I announced elections for January 8." Yet in his speech after taking the oath, he lashed out at Western critics, saying they are "obsessed" with a version of democracy that does not fit with Pakistani society.
The issue that Musharraf has failed to address, however -- and that could still badly undermine his vision of a controlled transition to democracy -- is his firing of several Supreme Court justices Nov. 3. Although the Bush administration and other Musharraf allies have not demanded the judges' reinstatement, Pakistanis across the economic and political spectrum have made passionate calls for him to do so.
Musharraf has said repeatedly that he will never restore those judges, who were deposed to clear the way for a validation of his reelection in October by the outgoing Parliament. They have since been held under house arrest, growing in heroic stature by the day.
"The people of Pakistan will not be satisfied until the judiciary has been reinstated," Shafqat Mahmood, a political analyst, told Dawn TV.
Javed Jabbar, a former spokesman for Musharraf, called reinstating the judges "a fundamental request" from many Pakistanis.
But as Musharraf apparently saw it, the recalcitrant justices were part of the conspiracy to derail his plans. Although he did not mention them at all Thursday, in a news conference two weeks ago he railed at the high court and especially at former chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who frequently challenged his authority as military ruler and developed a major public following after Musharraf tried to fire him last spring.
After Musharraf was sworn in Thursday, a group of lawyers and journalists in the eastern city of Lahore protested angrily in the streets, chanting, "Go, Musharraf, go!" They clashed violently with police, and a number of the demonstrators were badly beaten, according to Pakistani news reports.
Other critics said Thursday night that Musharraf should have lifted the emergency immediately to allow people time to prepare for the elections. Candidates have had to rush to file their nomination papers, and they will not be able to campaign or hold public rallies during the next two weeks if the emergency continues.
"The emergency and the PCO" -- the provisional constitutional order under which Musharraf suspended the judges and took other repressive legal actions Nov. 3 -- "were illegal and unconstitutional. They should have been restored immediately," said Farhatullah Babar, a top aide to Bhutto.
Some analysts said it was significant that Musharraf had mentioned Dec. 16 as the probable date for lifting the emergency. The day before is the final deadline for parliamentary candidates to withdraw their nominations.