Pakistan's Opposition Criticizes Plan to Hold Elections Under Emergency Rule

Pakistan's opposition called on President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to lift a state of emergency, saying Monday that upcoming parliamentary elections would be a sham unless citizens' rights were fully restored. Several parties were mulling a boycott.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, meanwhile, prepared to launch a cross-country caravan to protest military rule. Police ramped up security for her, saying they had received intelligence that a suicide bomber was planning to attack her in the eastern city of Lahore.

Bhutto was targeted in an Oct. 18 suicide attack during her homecoming from exile. The attack in the southern city of Karachi killed 145 other people.

On Sunday, Musharraf said he would stick to a January schedule for the polls but set no time limit on emergency rule, which has resulted in the arrests of thousands of his critics, a ban on rallies and the blacking out of independent TV networks.

The measures, he argued, were necessary to ensure "absolutely fair and transparent elections" and to step up the fight against Islamic militants threatening Pakistan.

Bhutto welcomed his Jan. 9 cut-off date for the vote but said campaigning would be "difficult."

Other opposition parties were more strident.

Raja Zafarul Haq, chairman of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, demanded restoration of the constitution which was suspended under the emergency, reinstatement of top judges purged by Musharraf and the release of detainees — as well as Sharif's return from exile.

"Under the current circumstances it is very difficult to expect there would be fair elections in the country," he told Associated Press Television News. "Within the next week there will be meetings and we will finally decide whether to go for elections or agitation."

Liaqat Baloch, secretary general of Pakistan's most popular Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, said they were strongly considering boycotting the elections. "If there is an emergency and no constitution, it is impossible to have free and fair elections," he told The Associated Press.

In Lahore, about 200 police were guarding the house where Bhutto was staying, with snipers on surrounding rooftops, ahead of her planned 185-mile protest caravan to Islamabad. The access road was blocked by steel barricades.

When she ventured outside into the city, dozens of police vehicles escorted her.

The rally, due to start on Tuesday, is intended to pressure Musharraf to end the emergency and give up his position as army chief. Thousands of Bhutto's supporters are expected to join her on the journey, likely to take about three days.

Ayaz Salim, a top police official, said police had stepped up security after receiving intelligence that a suicide bomber planning to kill Bhutto was staying in a Lahore hotel. He said police searched all the city's hotels but did not find the suspect.

Farzana Raja, a spokesman for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, vowed its supporters would fight any attempt by authorities to block her "freedom march" — which would appear to violate the current ban on rallies.

"If police try to stop us, in every town and district of Punjab, there will be a battlefield between PPP activists and police," he said.

Speaking Sunday, Musharraf appeared defiant but bitter at growing criticism of his decision to suspend the constitution just over a week ago, a step he says was necessary to combat rising Islamic militancy that had sown "turmoil, shock and confusion" in Pakistan.

His defense was unlikely to dispel the notion shared by many in Pakistan that the emergency — launched ahead of a Supreme Court ruling that could have nixed his plans to serve another five-year term — was motivated by his own determination to stay in power.

Adding to their concerns was an announcement by the attorney-general Sunday that military courts could now try civilians on charges ranging from treason to inciting public unrest. That could, in theory, include those who organize protests against Musharraf's military-led government.

The United States and other Western allies have urged Musharraf to hold crucial parliamentary polls on schedule, and said they were pleased at news they would not be delayed. Earlier, the government said the vote could be pushed back by up to a year.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed concern that Musharraf — considered a close U.S. ally in the war on terror — had not set a time limit for restoring citizens' rights.

"It's not a perfect situation," she said.

Two Democratic presidential hopefuls were more forceful.

Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said elections would be a "sham" without an end to the state of emergency. His rival, Bill Richardson, U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration, said "you can't have democracy halfway."