Former PMs register for Pakistan vote
LAHORE, Pakistan |
LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Former Pakistani prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif signed up on Monday to run in a January election while a spokesman for President Pervez Musharraf said he would be sworn in as a civilian on Thursday.
Both Sharif and Bhutto said they might yet boycott the January 8 general election, which is being organised under emergency rule that U.S. ally Musharraf imposed on November 3, largely to derail legal challenges to his bid to secure another term.
Sharif, ousted by President Musharraf eight years ago, flew home from Saudi Arabia on Sunday saying Musharraf had taken the country to the brink of disaster.
Two-time prime minister Sharif said he would not be a candidate for prime minister under Musharraf, who had to reinstate the judges he purged after declaring the emergency. Sharif also said he retained the option of boycotting the elections.
"We don't want to boycott elections, but if you push somebody to the wall, then what are the options left?" Sharif said at a news conference in Lahore.
"The boycott remains a very potent option for the opposition," said Sharif, who was deported when he tried to come back in September.
But the political atmosphere has changed radically since then with Musharraf's imposition of an emergency and the apparent breakdown of efforts to forge cooperation between him and Bhutto.
Musharraf, having secured a second five-year term, thanks to a new panel of friendly judges who validated his October 6 election victory, will quit as army chief and take the oath as a civilian president on Thursday, his spokesman said.
Bhutto, who came home from eight years in self-imposed exile last month, filed her election papers in her family's hometown of Larkana in the southern province of Sindh.
Western governments fear Musharraf's emergency rule and moves to stifle democracy in Pakistan could give an advantage to Islamist militants threatening the nuclear-armed nation.
There have been more than 25 suicide attacks since Islamist militants intensified a campaign in July. The latest two killed 15 people in Rawalpindi on Saturday.
Meanwhile, 15 militants were killed in the latest fighting in the Swat Valley northwest of Islamabad, the military said.
Musharraf is under pressure at home and abroad to roll back the emergency which he used to purge the Supreme Court of judges he feared would annul his October 6 election by parliament.
Unpopular, politically isolated and desperate for support from a new parliament, Musharraf now has to contend with two rivals he accused of corruption and spent much of the last eight years trying to marginalise.
He allowed Bhutto, also a two-time prime minister, to come back last month protected from old graft charges in the hope she would become a post-election ally.
Relations between Musharraf and Bhutto soured almost at once when a suicide attack killed at least 139 at her homecoming parade on October 19.
They worsened after Musharraf called the emergency, sacked judges, detained lawyers, opposition and rights activists, and muzzled the media.
Many of those initially detained have been released, but others have been held since.
Bhutto said her party would be taking part in the elections under protest.
"We felt that if we don't do that, then it will leave the field open for the regime and they will not need to rig the elections," Bhutto told Reuters by telephone from Larkana after filing her nomination papers.
She said Sharif's return was a positive step and it would put pressure on Musharraf's ruling party, which was co-opted from the rump of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League after he was ousted. Ruling party leaders fear members may now defect back to Sharif.
"It has already started cracking," Bhutto said of the party.
Sharif filed his papers in a Lahore court but Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum told Dawn TV it was "highly doubtful" Sharif would be eligible because of two convictions after Musharraf ousted him in 1999.
Nominations will be scrutinised by December 3 and a final candidate list will be published on December 16.
Musharraf's camp hopes opposition parties will take part as a poll without them would lack credibility.
Investors in the Karachi stock market were encouraged by Sharif's return, believing it reduced chances of a boycott that could sow instability. The index ended 0.33 percent higher.
The index shed almost 6 percent after the emergency but has recovered most of that and is up 37 percent this year.
Many ordinary Pakistanis, struggling with rising prices, seem disillusioned with all leaders. "The cost of living for poor people is too high," says 56-year-old rickshaw driver Ayub Niazi.
(Additional reporting by Simon Gardner, Augustine Anthony and Faisal Aziz; Writing by Robert Birsel)
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