Pakistan's Sharif joins election battlefield

Pakistan’s ex-premier Nawaz Sharif plotted tactics with key aides on Monday as he sought to capitalise on his hero’s welcome home from exile to spur opposition to President Pervez Musharraf.

Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a coup in 1999, was due to file his nomination papers for general elections, despite warning his party may end up boycotting the January 8 vote.

After a procession from the airport to his city residence that turned into an all-night party, Sharif spent time recovering and consulting relatives and senior party officials in his home in the eastern city of Lahore.

The ex-premier “is going to file his nomination papers shortly in Lahore”, his spokesperson, Zaeem Qadri, told Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile, officials indicated military ruler Musharraf would swear himself in as a civilian president on Thursday after first resigning from the army.

That would meet a key demand of the international community outraged by his state of emergency, now well into its fourth week despite his promise of free and fair elections.

“My information is that he will take the oath as a civilian president on Thursday,” Attorney General Malik Muhammad Qayyum said.

Qayyum said the Defence Ministry was expected on Monday or Tuesday to issue a formal notification of his impending resignation from the army.

“We expect today [Monday], hopefully, the notification will be issued,” Musharraf’s spokesperson, Rashid Qureshi, said.

“If it is received today, then one can expect the handing over and taking over [as chief of army staff] could take place tomorrow [Tuesday] or the day after,” he said.

That would allow for the swearing-in on Thursday, after the purged Supreme Court last week rubber-stamped his presidency for another five years.

Sharif’s return, just over a month after another ex-premier, Benazir Bhutto, flew home from exile, throws Pakistan’s political power-struggle wide open and further ratchets up the pressure on Musharraf.

If he forms a proposed alliance with Bhutto he could cause major problems for Musharraf and secure defections from the president’s ruling party.

But Musharraf’s willingness to allow Sharif to return may indicate that the president hopes to split the opposition vote.

Sharif denied any such understanding: “I have made no deal with Musharraf; my deal is with the people of Pakistan,” he told jubilant supporters welcoming him home late on Sunday.

Bhutto, filing her own nomination papers in her family’s ancestral home in Larkana, deep in rural southern Pakistan, reached out to Sharif.

“We are ready to forge an alliance with all moderate political parties. We welcome Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan. It will strengthen the democratic and political culture,” she told reporters.

“We are concerned that elections will be rigged but we don’t want to leave the field empty.”

However, analysts have questioned whether any alliance between Sharif and Bhutto, who have been bitter past rivals, will stand the test of time.

Sharif is a religious conservative while Bhutto, a secular leader, is seen by the United States—keen to preserve Pakistan’s role in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban—as pro-Western.

More crucial is the question of whether they will boycott the vote.

Staying away would rob Musharraf of the chance to portray the election to his critics around the world as evidence he is moving the country back toward democracy.

Taking part, opponents say, would be tantamount to legitimising emergency rule.

However, Qayyum warned earlier that Sharif could be ineligible because he had been sentenced to life in jail on corruption and hijacking charges before he was banished in 2000.—AFP



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