Bhutto, Sharif Joining Forces to Press Musharraf For Fair Elections

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Dec. 3 -- Pakistan's two main opposition leaders said Monday they would present President Pervez Musharraf with a list of demands for ensuring a fair election, threatening to boycott next month's vote if he does not agree.

The rare joint announcement by former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif -- bitter rivals stretching back decades -- marked an attempt to mount a common front against Musharraf. But it was clear that vast differences remain.

Sharif has advocated a hard line against Musharraf, pledging to keep his party out of the parliamentary election unless the president reinstates the Supreme Court justices he fired last month when he suspended the constitution and imposed emergency rule. But reinstatements are considered highly unlikely because getting rid of the judges is widely thought to have been Musharraf's main motivation for declaring the emergency.

Musharraf has, in turn, pushed back at Sharif: On Monday, the government's election commission ruled that Sharif cannot run for parliament because of previous criminal convictions, which he asserts were politically motivated. The decision makes him ineligible to become prime minister again even if his party competes and wins a plurality of seats on Jan. 8.

Bhutto has advocated a more cautious approach. For much of the year, she sought negotiated terms for sharing power with Musharraf. She now seems inclined to keep her party in the election and to try to outflank the president after her supporters have proved their might at the polls.

Emerging from more than three hours of talks, Sharif and Bhutto said at a late-night news conference that a committee of top lieutenants from each camp would draw up a list of demands for Musharraf within days. The two did not specify what the demands would be, but Bhutto made clear they would be more modest than what Sharif has sought. She referred to the need for an independent election commission and neutral officials to oversee the vote but dodged questions about whether the opposition would insist on the reinstatement of the Supreme Court judges.

"We are looking for concrete steps to ensure these elections are fair," she said. The opposition, she said, planned to "throw the ball into the regime's court and take the next step, depending on what the regime does."

While insisting that a boycott is an option, Bhutto said it is definitely not her preference.

Sharif indicated that the idea of a boycott still holds appeal as a way of discrediting Musharraf's claim to be moving the country toward democracy. "If the major parties don't participate, what kind of election will it be?" Sharif asked.

Still, Sharif did not repeat his demand for the judges' reinstatement, and it appeared that the creation of a committee to choose the election demands might ultimately give him cover for backing down from his boycott threat. He is under pressure from members of his own party who want to participate in the election, even if he personally cannot.

Monday's meeting was the first between the two former prime ministers since they both returned to Pakistan this fall after lengthy periods in exile. The two traded power throughout the 1990s, before Musharraf toppled Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999.

Bhutto cited her and Sharif's returns from exile as evidence of progress toward democracy. She also referred to Musharraf's decision to step down from the army and his promise to end emergency rule by mid-December.

But she chastised the government for trying to rig the polls. Bhutto said local officials allied with Musharraf's ruling party are being given thousands of ballots already marked in favor of candidates who support the president. She also said that the government plans to mislead the public about polling place locations in a bid to discourage opposition turnout.

"If there is a level playing field, we know the opposition parties are going to get a landslide victory," Bhutto said, adding that Musharraf's supporters will behave "like rats deserting a sinking ship."

The government has promised that the elections will be free and fair, and has denied the opposition's charges of plans to rig the polls.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company