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Sharif to Benazir: Boycott elections

Islamabad, Dec. 3 (AP): Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif began a last-ditch effort today to persuade fellow Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to jointly boycott Pakistan’s crucial parliamentary elections.

However, he suggested that his party was ready to contest the vote if he fails. It was the first meeting between the two leaders since both returned from exile in recent weeks.

The talks came hours after an election official rejected Sharif’s own candidacy for the January 8 vote, a decision that could deprive him of the chance to become Prime Minister for a third time.

Bhutto, also a former Premier, reiterated today that she thought all Opposition parties should take part in the elections despite concerns they will not be free and fair, rather than leave the field open to supporters of President Pervez Musharraf.

Opposition parties, enraged by Musharraf’s imposition of a state of emergency a month ago, complain that the judiciary and election authorities are biased in favour of the President’s supporters.

But Musharraf and the US are urging them to abandon the threatened boycott, fearing it could derail hopes for a smooth transition to democracy and a moderate government committed to fighting Islamic extremism.

Javed Hashmi, a senior official in Sharif’s party, said they were still consulting with other Opposition groups in search of a collective decision for a boycott. He added, however, that it was likely they would decide to participate if Bhutto and other leaders disagreed.

“We're not sure until a final decision is taken, but it seems difficult not to contest the elections,” he said.

Speaking ahead of the meeting with Bhutto in Islamabad, Sharif dropped a strong hint that he was preparing to let his party fight the elections. However, an election official for the constituency in the Lahore, which he hopes to contest, upheld today complaints filed against Sharif’s candidacy.

The former Prime Minister said he would tell an alliance of Musharraf’s most vociferous opponents — which he leads — that “we should now be fighting these elections, we should be fighting dictatorship with more vigour and determination”.

However, several party leaders said shunning the poll was still the goal.

A ruling party candidate for the National Assembly seat that Sharif is listed to contest had complained that the ex-Prime Minister was ineligible for the election because of a conviction on charges related to the 1999 coup, in which Musharraf ousted his government.

He also complained about Sharif’s alleged default on a bank loan and an incident in 1997 in which Sharif’s supporters stormed the supreme court. Election official Raja Qamaruz Zaman said the objections had been “accepted”, but gave no details.

Sharif said he had yet to decide whether to appeal the ruling against his candidacy, but added that to do so would be tantamount to recognising courts purged of independent-minded judges under the emergency. “These judges don’t owe their allegiance to the state but to Musharraf,” he said.

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