Pakistan Official Rejects Opposition Leader Nawaz Sharif's Candidacy

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif began a last-ditch effort Monday to persuade fellow opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to jointly boycott Pakistan's crucial parliamentary elections — but he suggested his party was ready to contest the vote if he fails.

That apparent shift in tactics came despite the rejection of his own candidacy for the Jan. 8 vote by an election official, a decision that could deprive him of the chance to become prime minister for a third time.

Bhutto, another former premier recently returned from exile, reiterated Monday 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.

Javed Hashmi, a senior official in Sharif's party, said they were still consulting with other opposition groups in search of a collective decision to boycott the elections.

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

Musharraf and the United States are urging opposition parties to abandon threats of a boycott that could derail hopes for a smooth transition to democracy and a moderate government committed to fighting Islamic extremism.

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.

Speaking ahead of a meeting late Monday with Bhutto, Sharif dropped a strong hint that he was preparing to let his party fight the elections. Earlier, an election official for the constituency in the eastern city of Lahore that he hopes to contest upheld complaints filed against his candidacy.

Sharif said he did not know if his disqualification would make an opposition boycott more likely. Several party leaders said shunning the poll was still their goal.

But Sharif 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 vigor and determination."