ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani opposition parties tried to forge a united front on Wednesday against military president Pervez Musharraf, who insisted his state of emergency was vital for fair elections.
Police detained cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan after he emerged from hiding to lead a student protest against Musharraf, who declared emergency rule in nuclear-armed Pakistan on November 3, suspending the constitution, getting rid of hostile judges, rounding up opponents and curbing the media.
“We are ready to set aside our differences with the People’s Party,” former prime minister Nawaz Sharif told Reuters by telephone from Saudi Arabia, referring to the party of another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.
Bhutto, who had been in power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months, returned home in October from eight years of self-imposed exile and aimed to work with the president on a transition to civilian rule.
Then came the crackdown. After police stifled a protest by Bhutto on Tuesday and put her under house arrest, she announced her talks with Musharraf were over, and for the first time called on him to step down as president as well as army chief.
She also contacted old rivals including Islamist alliance leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Sharif’s party to try to unite on a “minimum agenda”; the ouster of Musharraf and formation of a neutral government to organisorganizee fair elections, an aide said.
“I’m sending this letter to leaders of different parties, to invite them to Karachi on November 21 and I’d like to work with them in sharing views with what could be a common agenda for all of us to rally around,” Bhutto told Reuters by telephone.
She said her party might boycott a parliamentary election Musharraf has promised to hold by January 9 and would discuss that with opposition colleagues next week.
Sharif and Bhutto were bitter rivals during the late 1980s and 1990s. They each served two terms as prime minister until Musharraf ousted Sharif in 1999.
Both faced corruption charges, which they denied.
Underscoring the difficulty of uniting a fractious opposition, students loyal to religious alliance leader Ahmed briefly detained Imran Khan when he emerged from hiding to lead a campus protest in Lahore. Police later detained Khan.
Under pressure from the United States and other allies to move towards democracy, Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, said at the weekend the national election would take place. He did not say when the constitution would be restored or the emergency lifted.
He said he would quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president as soon as the Supreme Court, where judges regarded as friendly to the government have been appointed, ruled on challenges by legislators to his October re-election.
The attorney general said the court was expected to reach a ruling around the end of next week.
Bhutto said Musharraf’s promise to quit the army soon was too vague: “We need a firm date.”
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who last week warned against cutting aid to an “indispensable” ally, is due in Pakistan on Friday or Saturday and is expected to meet Musharraf and to urge him to end the emergency, the U.S. State Department said.
“In an environment marked by terrorism and suicide attacks, the state of emergency was necessary for the holding of peaceful, free and honest elections,” Musharraf told Le Monde on Wednesday.
He told Britain’s Sky News he had considered resigning but now felt he was the man to lead Pakistan to democracy. Sky, the last foreign news channel available on cable in Pakistan, went off the air shortly after broadcasting that news.
“We continue to call on him to lift it (the emergency) immediately,” a White House spokeswoman told reporters. “We think that would be in the best interest of the Pakistanis.”
Police have used batons and tear gas to break up small protests since the emergency was declared but there has been no major violence.
Analysts say Bhutto’s refusal to deal with Musharraf had isolated the president, though he retained the crucial backing of the army and the support of a disparate group of politicians expected to do badly in the polls.
Pakistani shares ended 2.24 percent down on political worries while the rupee edged to a three-year low.
Additional reporting by Simon Gardner and Kamran Haider in Lahore