Musharraf plans Jan. vote

But Pakistan's president sets no date for lifting emergency decree

November 12, 2007|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Raising the prospect of an election campaign carried out under de facto martial law, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said yesterday that balloting for a new parliament would take place in early January, but he set no date for lifting his emergency decree.

Musharraf's pledge to hold elections in less than nine weeks, in adherence with the original schedule, won quick praise from the Bush administration, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling it a welcome sign.

"Pakistanis need to see that there is a re-establishment of a road to a democratic path," she said on ABC's This Week, adding that if Musharraf "carries through on his obligations that he's made to us and that he's made to his own people, that road will be re-established."

But rights groups, democracy activists and opposition leaders questioned whether a campaign that took place while basic liberties were curtailed could be considered free and fair.

The general's often-combative remarks, delivered at a news conference at his official residence, appeared consistent with a pattern of behavior that had emerged in recent days: a harsh and unyielding stance on domestic dissent, coupled with statements meant to ease the concerns of Western governments, particularly his chief patron, the United States.

Appearing before hundreds of Pakistani and foreign reporters for the first time since his Nov. 3 declaration, Musharraf defended the emergency decree, railed against the senior judges he dismissed, described thousands of jailed activists as a threat to law and order, and suggested that independent Pakistani news channels silenced by him had abetted terrorists.

Even as he repeated his contention that the battle against Islamic militants was the main motive for the decree, the Pakistani leader delivered a lengthy diatribe against deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, accusing him of corruption and "humiliating" treatment of government officials.

Chaudhry, who had emerged as a crucial obstacle to Musharraf's election to a new presidential term while still serving as military chief, was fired as one of the general's first acts under the emergency decree.

Musharraf ruled out the possibility that Chaudhry or dozens of other judges who refused to swear allegiance to his government would get their jobs back.

Musharraf set no date for relinquishing his role as army chief. But he said he hoped to do so after the Supreme Court, which is now packed with loyalists, validates his election last month.

Opponents had challenged that vote in court, saying that he should not have been elected by outgoing assemblies and that the constitution forbade his election while he was head of the military.

He was similarly vague about the end to authoritarian provisions adopted under decree. "I do understand that the emergency has to be lifted but cannot give a date," he said. Aides have said it could last a month or longer.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is keeping open the option of an eventual power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf, called the announcement of a January vote a "first positive step," but she noted that emergency rule would make electioneering difficult. Under the decree, large gatherings are barred and free-speech guarantees abolished.

Bhutto flew to Lahore yesterday to prepare for what she says will be a major rally beginning tomorrow as she travels by car back to Islamabad, an event authorities say they will not allow to take place. She was greeted at Lahore airport by hundreds of supporters waving the flags of her Pakistan Peoples Party.

The other major opposition party, which has urged Bhutto to sever ties with Musharraf, was more critical of the election plans.

"Holding elections in an emergency will be a mockery of democracy," said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League, the party of exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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