Musharraf Promises Elections by Feb. 15

By Griff Witte and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 9, 2007

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Nov. 9 -- As a possible clash loomed between security forces and supporters of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Thursday set a deadline of Feb. 15 for holding elections. But he did not give any indication of when he plans to end emergency rule, and a government spokesman said it might not happen before the vote.

The announcement drew praise from the United States, which has been pressuring Musharraf to set a date for the parliamentary elections. Bhutto, however, was not dissuaded from pushing ahead with plans for a major rally in this garrison city Friday in defiance of a ban on protests.

But on Friday morning, authorities placed Bhutto under virtual house arrest, surrounding her home in Islamabad, the capital, with several hundred riot police in a cordon that prevented her from traveling to Rawalpindi.

At a news conference Thursday in Islamabad Bhutto said Musharraf had not satisfied her demands to restore the constitution, hold elections on time and retire as army chief. She called on all Pakistanis, regardless of their party, to attend Friday's rally.

"If you support democracy, please join us," she said.

In advance of the rally, authorities rounded up nearly 500 activists from Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party in overnight raids, the first time that her supporters have been targeted since the emergency was declared. On Friday, police said they were barricading all roads leading from Islamabad to Rawalpindi to block the demonstration.

Elections were originally due in January, but when emergency rule was imposed, government officials raised the possibility of postponing them by as much as a year. The Bush administration had called for the vote to proceed and on Thursday applauded Musharraf's announcement.

"We would like to see him return to those elections as he said today he would do," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "The uniform is still an issue. The president called on him to take it off. He said, 'You can't be both the president and the head of the army.' "

The United States has also tried to persuade Musharraf to restore the constitution, and on that front there was no visible progress. Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan said there was no schedule for lifting the emergency rule imposed over the weekend, when Musharraf suspended many civil rights and fired Supreme Court justices who had refused to agree to a new, provisional constitution.

Khan noted that Pakistan has held elections during previous periods of emergency rule and that "this could happen again."

He also said no date had been set for Musharraf to step down as army chief. The president reiterated Thursday that he planned to do so before he is sworn in for a new term. But Khan said the president cannot take a new oath until the Supreme Court rules that he is eligible. The recent purge of justices included several members reviewing challenges to Musharraf's reelection as president while he remained in his military post. The government had expected to lose that case, but with all of the remaining judges sympathetic to Musharraf, there is now no question the outcome will be in his favor.

Musharraf's current term as president expires Nov. 15.

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