Bhutto, Sharif put rivalry aside to demand free vote
SAEED SHAH: Globe and Mail; December 4, 2007
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's political opposition came together yesterday to demand a free election, threatening Pervez Musharraf's new presidency with a boycott or street protests.
The country's two major opposition figures, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, bitter rivals by nature, formed a joint platform, with other opposition leaders, to put forward a "charter of demands," steps that they believe must be taken to have fair vote.
The move will intensify the pressure on Mr. Musharraf's administration, as he badly needs at least one of the two big opposition politicians to take part in the poll to give it legitimacy. An opposition-wide boycott would be likely to plunge Pakistan into a fresh bout of instability.
"These elections will be massively rigged because Mr. Musharraf's survival lies in rigging it," said Mr. Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N. "We don't want to boycott the election but we are being forced to."
Earlier yesterday, the election commission declared that Mr. Sharif was ineligible to run because of his past legal convictions, a development that would be likely to further harden his stand against his party's participation. He is considering appealing the decision. However, Ms. Bhutto is inclined to run, making it difficult for Mr. Sharif's party to stay out, with or without him.
U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson met Mr. Sharif separately yesterday, in an apparent attempt to convince him that his party should take part in the election, scheduled for Jan. 8. Washington is concerned that its key ally Pakistan restore democracy, which it believes will bolster the country's role in the war on terrorism.
In a joint press conference, Mr. Sharif and Ms. Bhutto, sitting side by side, called for an independent election commission, suspension of local pro-Musharraf officials and the end of an alleged government plan to give itself votes through the use of "ghost" polling stations, a tactic that Ms. Bhutto called "robbery of the election."
"If the charter of demands are not met, all options are open," said Ms. Bhutto, head of the Pakistan People's Party. "We reserve the right to boycott."
She said that there is "no chance" of a fair election under current conditions. The opposition would launch a protest movement once election rigging has taken place, she said.
"This is a good day for democracy in Pakistan," said Hassan Abbas, research fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center. "Only by coming together do they [Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif] have a chance of having a majority to form the next government."
"I hope that they have learned their lessons. What they did in the 1990s was counterproductive. Musharraf is a product of their failure to deliver."
Mr. Sharif and Ms. Bhutto were each prime minister twice between 1988 and 1999, when Mr. Sharif was deposed in a coup by Mr. Musharraf, who was army chief until last week. The two competitors came together in opposition in May of 2006, signing a "charter for democracy," but that disintegrated after it was revealed that Ms. Bhutto had been in secret negotiations with Mr. Musharraf over a power-sharing deal. So yesterday's rapprochement is significant but precarious.