Former Pakistani premier calls on Bhutto to abstain from elections



By Matthew Pennington

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif began a last-ditch effort Monday to persuade fellow opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to join a boycott of parliamentary elections – but he suggested his party was ready to contest the vote if he fails.

It was the first meeting between the two former premiers since they both returned from exile in recent weeks. The talks came hours after an election official rejected Sharif’s own candidacy for the Jan. 8 vote, a decision that could deprive him of the chance to become prime minister for a third time.

Bhutto reiterated that she thought all opposition parties should take part in the vote, despite concerns it won’t 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 favor of the president’s supporters.

Musharraf and the United States 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.

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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, but he added it was likely they would decide to take part 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 before the meeting with Bhutto, Sharif dropped a strong hint that he was preparing to let his party fight the elections, although an election official for the constituency in the eastern city of Lahore that he hopes to contest upheld complaints filed against his candidacy.

Associated Press writers Zia Khan and Zarar Khan in Lahore and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad contributed to this report