Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the two former prime ministers who have long bitterly opposed each other, joined with an opposition alliance on Monday to denounce what they saw as an unfair environment ahead of parliamentary elections planned for January.
They threatened a mass boycott if President Pervez Musharraf does not improve conditions for an open elections campaign and fair voting procedures.
“Free and fair elections do not seem possible,” said Sharif, just hours after the election commission barred him from running in the elections. The commission said his nomination papers were rejected because of a conviction for hijacking as he tried to prevent Musharraf’s plane from landing in Pakistan in 1999, shortly before Sharif’s government was overthrown by Musharraf, who was then the country’s military leader.
The fact that the diverse opposition parties were able to unite to oppose Musharraf is unlikely to be enough to derail the election process. But it may help the opposition to do well enough in the elections to cause Musharraf difficulties afterward if their cooperation continues.
Sharif — who has been Musharraf’s strongest and most vocal critic — said that his removal from the parliamentary race did not matter and would not affect the determination of the opposition to press its demands.
“It is not an issue of my own person, it is a matter of democracy versus dictatorship,” he said. His brother, Shahbaz Sharif, has also been barred from running, on the grounds of financial irregularities.
The alliance of opposition parties would present its demands to Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif said. “It these are not accepted, we will move toward a boycott,” he said.
Bhutto has opposed a boycott of the elections, arguing that it would only allow Musharraf to pack the Parliament with his own supporters and to form a government favorable to him. Without her Pakistan Peoples Party, the largest opposition party, a boycott would be largely ineffective. But she said on Monday that her party reserved the right to boycott the elections if conditions did not improve.
Yet Bhutto also said that there was every sign that the president was already preparing to fix the elections on his behalf and that the opposition needed to combine forces to oppose him.
“If elections are rigged we are going to need to be in a position, like the people of Ukraine were, to protest those elections,” she said, sitting beside Sharif and flanked by other opposition leaders at a news conference at her Islamabad home. “We really need to have a platform to which all the parties together can put the aspirations of the people for a democratic order.”
She demanded that an unbiased election commission be appointed, and accused the government of “downright robbery,” saying that it planned to rig the results by transferring thousands of pre-stamped ballots to stuff ballot boxes in the provinces.
“If we don’t get a fair election, public pressure must be mounted,” she said. “The ball is in the court of the regime.”