Musharraf pledges January elections

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Raising the prospect of an election campaign carried out under de facto martial law, President Pervez Musharraf said Sunday that balloting for a new parliament would take place in early January, but set no date for lifting his emergency decree.

Musharraf’s pledge to hold elections in less than nine weeks, in adherence to the original schedule, won quick praise from the Bush administration, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling it a welcome sign.

“Pakistanis need to see that there is a reestablishment of a road to a democratic path,” she said on ABC’s “This Week,” adding that if Musharraf “carries through on his obligations that he’s made to us and that he’s made to his own people, that road will be reestablished.”

But human rights groups, democracy activists and opposition leaders questioned whether a campaign that took place while basic liberties were curtailed could be considered free and fair.

The general’s often-combative remarks, delivered at a news conference at his official residence, appeared consistent with a pattern of behavior that had emerged in recent days: a harsh and unyielding stance on domestic dissent, coupled with statements meant to ease the concerns of Western governments, particularly his chief patron, the United States.

Appearing before hundreds of Pakistani and foreign reporters for the first time since his Nov. 3 declaration, Musharraf forcefully defended the emergency decree, railed against the senior judges he had dismissed, described thousands of jailed activists as a threat to law and order, and suggested that independent Pakistani news channels now silenced by him had abetted terrorists.

Even as he repeated his contention that the battle against Islamic militants was the main motive for the decree, the Pakistani leader delivered a lengthy diatribe against deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, accusing him of misdeeds ranging from corruption to “humiliating” treatment of government officials.

Chaudhry was fired in one of the president’s first acts under the emergency decree. The justice had emerged as a key obstacle to Musharraf’s being elected to a new presidential term without giving up his post as military chief.

With an edge of anger in his voice, Musharraf ruled out the possibility that Chaudhry or dozens of other senior judges who refused to swear allegiance to his government would get their jobs back.

“Those who would not take an oath are gone,” he said flatly. “They are no more judges.”

Musharraf, who appeared at the news conference in a dark suit and tie rather than his military fatigues, set no date for relinquishing his role as army chief. But he said he hoped to do so after the Supreme Court, which is now packed with loyalists, validates his election last month as president by lawmakers.

Opponents had challenged that vote in court, saying that he should not have been elected by outgoing assemblies and that the constitution forbade his election while he was still head of the military.

“I wish I could give a specific date for taking my oath as civilian president,” Musharraf said, adding that he expected to retire from the military soon.

He was similarly vague about any end to the authoritarian provisions adopted under the decree. “I do understand that the emergency has to be lifted, but cannot give a date,” he said. Aides have said it could last a month or more.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is keeping open the option of an eventual power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf, called the announcement of a January vote a “first positive step,” but noted that emergency rule would make electioneering difficult. Under the decree, large gatherings are banned and free-speech guarantees abolished.

Bhutto flew Sunday to the eastern city of Lahore to prepare for what she says will be a massive road rally beginning Tuesday as she travels by car back to Islamabad, an event authorities say they will not allow. She was greeted at the Lahore airport by hundreds of supporters waving the red, green and black flags of her Pakistan People’s Party.

The other major opposition party, which has urged Bhutto to sever all ties with Musharraf, was far more critical of the latest election plans.

“Holding elections in an emergency will be a mockery of democracy,” said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the party of exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Democracy advocates, who had expressed fears of vote rigging and intimidation even before the emergency declaration, also said they were dismayed by the notion of a campaign conducted under such restrictions.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the nonprofit Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, said that unless press freedoms and judicial independence were restored well in advance of the vote, the balloting would have little legitimacy.

“Nobody is going to accept these elections except close cronies of Musharraf,” he said.

The Pakistani leader said he had instructed election officials to move as quickly as possible to set a date for the vote, following the dissolution of parliament and regional assemblies this week. Elections are to take place within 60 days of that step, with a caretaker government in place in the meantime.

Musharraf portrayed the decision to impose emergency rule as a personal sacrifice in the interests of the country, not a power grab.

“It was indeed a bitter pill to swallow; it was no doubt the most difficult decision I have ever taken in my life,” he said. “I could have preserved myself, but it would have damaged the nation.”

The 64-year-old Pakistani leader was dismissive of questions regarding the thousands of opposition leaders, lawyers and human rights activists, most of them political moderates, who have been arrested since the emergency decree. Those who were rounded up posed a threat, he said.

“If anyone disturbs the law and order situation, arrests are because of that,” he said sharply.

Musharraf took a similarly aggressive tack in characterizing the private television channels taken off the air in the early hours of emergency rule. Without providing specific examples, he charged that they had glorified suicide bombers, who have struck dozens of times across Pakistan in recent months.

The general was also unapologetic over the expulsion of three reporters from Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, the first Western journalists to be targeted in the crackdown. They left the country Sunday, ordered out after a commentary printed in their newspaper referred to Musharraf with an expletive.

He said the language violated “norms of behavior,” adding brusquely: “I expect an apology.”

Perhaps seeking to bolster his contention that the emergency declaration is an internal matter, Musharraf adopted a sardonic tone about outsiders’ degree of knowledge of the country.

To a questioner who referred to Bhutto’s popularity in the wake of his decree, he fired back: “Did you say raised her popularity? I wonder whether you are correct, or have a correct feel for Pakistan.”

He also insisted the emergency measures would reinvigorate the fight against extremists based near the Afghan border. He promised larger troop deployments and a lead role for the army, as opposed to paramilitary forces.

On ABC, Rice underscored U.S. concerns about those militants as she gave the clearest indication yet that the Bush administration would not cut off military aid to Pakistan in response to the emergency decree.

Last week, Rice said the U.S. would review all its funding to the country -- more than $10 billion since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And Sunday she said the review was still underway. But she added that much of the aid goes toward counter-terrorism and education programs.

“I would think that those are the kinds of programs that we would want to continue in Pakistan,” Rice said. “We have to have a longer-term view of our relationship with Pakistan and the Pakistani people, despite the difficulties that they’re going through right now.”

Times staff writers Henry Chu in Lahore and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.