By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov. 26 -- Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned home triumphantly Sunday after seven years in exile, filed his candidacy papers for parliament here Monday but said he might boycott elections in January if the military government that overthrew him does not lift emergency rule and reinstate deposed senior judges.
Military officials in the capital, meanwhile, confirmed that President Pervez Musharraf will step down as Pakistan's army chief Wednesday and take an oath as its civilian president Thursday. Analysts here see the move as an effort to appease domestic and foreign critics while maintaining political power.
Musharraf, 64, did not say when he would end emergency rule, which he imposed Nov. 3, and he has made it clear he will not meet his opponents' demand to restore the Supreme Court judges he fired for refusing to endorse the emergency. The government had said previously that Musharraf would resign from the army this week.
The moves scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday will mean that Musharraf "has retired from the army but remains, as all presidents do, as supreme commander of the armed forces," said Musharraf's spokesman, retired Gen. Rashid Qureshi.
Qureshi said emergency rule would be lifted when it is no longer needed and that the issue has nothing to do with Musharraf's departure from the army. Musharraf will be replaced in the military post by the current vice chief of the army, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, a former military intelligence chief who is widely regarded as a professional soldier with no political ambitions.
As part of his effort to engineer a smooth but controlled transition to civilian rule, Musharraf installed a caretaker government earlier this month and announced that parliamentary elections would be held in January. Analysts have said he is betting that the fractious opposition parties will ultimately decide to compete.
But opponents say credible and fair elections cannot be held under emergency rule, which entails the suspension of many civil liberties. Opposition parties have said they will decide by week's end whether to boycott the vote.
"The next few days will show if Musharraf comes out as the Great Tactician or the Great Strategist," said Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani analyst in Washington. "The key will be how fast the opposition holds together and boycotts the elections and then takes its protest to the streets."
Sharif, at his first news conference on Pakistani soil since he was overthrown by Musharraf in October 1999, strongly condemned the military government Monday and said it must "roll back" all provisions of the emergency rule imposed Nov. 3 -- especially the firing of senior judges -- if it expects opponents to participate in elections on Jan. 8.
Sharif, the country's last civilian prime minister, said his party did not want to boycott the polls but was "being pushed to the wall" by the continued crackdown on the judiciary, the news media and political opponents.
"The most important thing is that the judiciary must be restored," he said. "We want a democratic Pakistan. We want the rule of law. Pakistan is the only example of a country with a judiciary under house arrest."
Sharif, 57, whose return from exile Musharraf tried repeatedly to prevent before the upcoming elections, said he did not have personal ambitions for office. Although his return was timed to meet the Monday deadline for filing candidacy papers, he insisted that he would withdraw his candidacy if opposition parties decide to boycott the process.
"I am not a job seeker. I am not looking for office. I am looking to rid my country from the menace of dictatorship," Sharif said, speaking with poise but looking exhausted after an all-night procession through welcoming crowds in his native city.
Sharif's major rival, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People's Party, filed candidacy papers Sunday but said she was doing so "under protest." Sharif said he had been in contact with Bhutto and hoped they might find common ground on the elections, but he noted that Bhutto has not demanded the restoration of all judges.
Sharif, the son of a wealthy industrial family from Lahore, in the eastern province of Punjab, was twice elected prime minister from the mainstream but right-leaning Pakistan Muslim League and commands the loyalty of many Punjabis. Bhutto, 54, is an elegant, Western-educated politician and the daughter of a former prime minister who was hanged by Pakistan's last military dictator. She is the longtime head of the large, left-leaning Pakistan People's Party, which has a national following among working-class and secular Pakistanis.
One candidate who filed for the elections under especially surreal circumstances is Aitzaz Ahsan, 62, a prominent lawyer from Lahore and a longtime activist in Bhutto's party. He was arrested Nov. 3 and imprisoned for three weeks along with three other senior lawyers who had spearheaded challenges in the Supreme Court to Musharraf's rule.
On Sunday, government officials suddenly took Ahsan from prison and drove him to Lahore, where he was placed under house arrest, with police guards posted outside his rambling, vine-covered home and law office in the suburb of Zaman Park. On the front door they nailed a piece of paper with the scrawled words "Zaman Park Sub-Jail."
On Monday, Ahsan was driven under police escort to the Lahore election commission's office to file candidacy papers for the parliamentary elections. The gray-haired lawyer and author was mobbed by well-wishers, who placed garlands of flowers around his neck. Before being driven back to his house, he told journalists he did not see how the country could possibly hold free and fair elections.
"No matter who runs, they are going to manufacture the results," Ahsan's wife, Bushra, said in an interview Monday. Her husband is not allowed to receive visitors. She said the military government hates him "because he cannot be bought" and has pitted an extremely wealthy candidate against him, although it wants him to run to give credibility to the elections.
The elections are like a game being played by an emperor, she said: "We don't believe in these elections, and we are in no mood to compete."