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Regional News
Jan 01, 2008
Opponent calls for Musharraf to quit at once

LAHORE, Pakistan: The most experienced opposition politician in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, upped the ante in the coming confrontation with the governing party on Monday, calling for President Pervez Musharraf's immediate resignation and the formation of a government of national consensus.

The attack, the most stinging public rebuke of the president from Sharif since his return from exile, was delivered amid strong indications that the government would postpone elections scheduled for next Tuesday, because of the chaos after the assassination of Musharraf's other rival, Benazir Bhutto.

While the government will not decide formally until Tuesday, officials with the Pakistani election commission said the voting would probably be delayed until the end of January or early February, despite Washington's entreaties to hold it as scheduled.

Sharif, a former prime minister, said that his party would participate if the parliamentary elections went ahead next week, despite his recent threats to stage a boycott.

Both Sharif's party and the Pakistan Peoples Party of Bhutto, now led by her son and husband, believe they can capitalize at the polls on the deep well of sympathy over the killing and anger against the government and its security forces for not doing more to prevent it.

In Washington, the Pakistani ambassador said the Musharraf government would accept international help for an inquiry into the disputed circumstances surrounding Bhutto's death, but not an independent investigation by outside experts.

Many opposition figures and Pakistani political commentators have said that damage to election offices in Sindh Province caused by the violence that erupted after Bhutto's death, the burning of electoral rolls and what they saw as the government's plans to rig the results virtually guaranteed that an election next Tuesday would be deeply flawed.

Sharif suggested that his party would participate only because it had little choice but to follow the decision by Bhutto's party on Sunday to run in the elections.

A State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said Monday that while the Bush administration continued to support holding elections next Tuesday, it would defer to the judgment of Pakistani political leaders on the wisdom of a delay.

"The key here is that there be a date certain for elections in Pakistan," Casey said. "We would certainly, I think, have concerns about some sort of indefinite postponement of the elections, because I don't think that serves the interests of anyone, certainly not the Pakistani people."

In a news conference here in the headquarters of his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, Sharif did not mince words in his assessment of President Musharraf. "He is a one-man calamity and the source of all the problems," he said. "The country is burning."

The strong words Sharif unleashed against Musharraf in the briefing reflected the poisonous history between the men.

Like Bhutto, Sharif was twice prime minister. He was deposed during his second term in October 1999 when Musharraf was head of the Pakistani Army and staged a coup against him.

Hours before the coup, Sharif had hoped to oust Musharraf — whom Sharif had personally elevated to the top army post — by preventing his plane from landing after a trip abroad.

But that gambit failed, and once Musharraf became president, he charged Sharif with attempted murder and corruption, then banished him to a 10-year exile in Saudi Arabia.

Sharif returned to Pakistan in November, and since then has taken a tougher stand against Musharraf than did Bhutto, including a demand that the president restore the judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts who were fired during the recent six-week emergency rule.

Expanding on the former prime minister's comments at the news conference here, his brother, Shahbaz, also an experienced politician, said he was confident that the mood against the Musharraf government had turned so sour that the two main opposition parties would win the election, even if it was delayed a bit.

Shahbaz Sharif was chief minister of Punjab Province, one of the most powerful jobs in Pakistan, during his brother's second term.

"The Pakistan Peoples Party will win seats, and we will defeat the Q League hands down," he said, referring to the faction of the Pakistan Muslim League made up of Musharraf's followers. "Even if they try to rig, we will win. The atmosphere has changed against them. The courage to rig has diminished."

He accused the current chief minister of Punjab, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, of planning to distribute forged ballot papers and to create "ghost" polling places in order to swing the election in favor of Musharraf's party. "Ghost" polling places are extra polling places that are often created in Pakistani elections to enhance the vote totals of one side or another.

The best solution to the current charged political atmosphere, Shahbaz Sharif said, would be for Musharraf to allow a government of "national consensus" to be formed in consultation with the opposition parties.

This government's chief task would be to prepare for elections 45 days to three months after taking office.

The new government could form a neutral and powerful election commission to replace the current politically biased one, a move that was more likely to ensure free and fair elections, he said. "The Election Commission is a pawn; it has no legitimacy," he said.

Such a government would also be in a better position to investigate the still uncertain circumstances surrounding the assassination of Bhutto, because it would be perceived as being more neutral, he said.

The idea of a consensus government that would hold office until new elections has gained currency in Pakistan's news media since Bhutto's death. If steps are not taken to form a consensus government, Shahbaz Sharif said, the public anger could spin out of control.

The fury in the province of Sindh, the home base of the Bhutto family, was so intense that the possibility was raised that it might split off as a separate entity. There were strong undercurrents for separation from the federation of Pakistan in the province of Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province as well, Shahbaz Sharif said.

But elsewhere in the country, there were only scattered reports of violence on Monday, primarily in Hyderabad and nearby Nawabshah, the hometown of Bhutto's husband.

Shahbaz Sharif said, "If Benazir Bhutto's killing is not investigated fairly and elections are not free and fair, and if a neutral caretaker government is not put in place, it can lead us to a crisis beyond anyone's reach."

(Source: "Opponent calls for Musharraf to quit at once", IHT, 01 January 2007)

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