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Pakistan rivals strategize together

Times Staff Writer

Pakistan’s two main opposition rivals met Monday for the first time since both returned from their years in exile, accusing President Pervez Musharraf of plotting to fix the Jan. 8 vote and vowing to muster a “people power” movement that would take to the streets to challenge any election they deem unfair.

Sitting side by side at a news conference, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both former premiers, said that major opposition parties would set out their conditions for what would constitute free and fair elections. The move would allow the opposition to begin organizing for mass protests against Musharraf, though the two leaders still do not agree on whether any protests should be held before votes are counted or afterward.

Bhutto said the street demonstrations could be modeled on the peaceful 2004 Orange Revolution that overturned what was widely seen as a fixed vote in Ukraine.

The specter of mass protests -- against a president who has used the army to gain and hold office -- signals that January’s election may not ensure the smooth transition to democracy Musharraf needs to pacify critics at home and in the Bush administration.

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The opposition still faces hurdles in presenting a common front. Though he now says he is eager for his party to participate in the election, Sharif has been at the head of calls to boycott it, demanding that Musharraf first reinstate the Supreme Court judges he fired and jailed when he declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3.

Bhutto has said her party will participate in the election even under imperfect circumstances. But she wants to retain the ability to challenge the vote’s legitimacy if it returns Musharraf’s party to power.

“We have always recognized that if elections are rigged, we must be in a position, like the people of Ukraine, to protest those elections,” Bhutto said. “We reserve the right to boycott, at a later stage.”

The main opposition parties have formed a committee to establish a “charter of demands” in the next few days, which would set out the benchmarks by which they would measure the fairness of the election.

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Significantly, Sharif did not mention his previous demand that Musharraf reinstate the fired judges as a condition of his party’s participation. Bhutto has maintained that issues such as judicial independence and the legality of Musharraf’s claim to the presidency can be resolved after a new parliament is fairly elected.

Monday’s gathering for dinner and a joint public appearance at Bhutto’s Islamabad home was still a step toward unity between two longtime political enemies. Bhutto and Sharif used the platform to accuse the president of conspiring to fix the election result, contending they had received “information” of 20,000 pro-Musharraf ballots being sent to “ghost” polling stations across the country.

“These elections will be massively rigged because Mr. Musharraf’s survival lies in rigging it,” Sharif said. Neither he nor Bhutto offered evidence to support their allegation.

Sharif faces other problems. The country’s election commission disallowed him from running as a candidate Monday, citing his criminal convictions for attempted hijacking and tax evasion. The controversial hijacking conviction stems from 1999 when, as prime minister, Sharif tried to prevent then-Gen. Musharraf’s plane from landing in Pakistan. Musharraf overthrew Sharif shortly afterward, seizing power in a military coup.

Sharif supporters charged that the election commission is stacked with Musharraf loyalists. But Sharif will have trouble appealing the ban in court, because he has said he does not recognize the legitimacy of the post-Nov. 3 judiciary.

bruce.wallace@latimes.com


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