Pakistani parties rally amid terror threat

Top critic Nawaz Sharif says President Pervez Musharraf hopes to silence the opposition ahead of Feb. 18 elections

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Ready: Nawaz Sharif heads PML-N, a leading opposition party.
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Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif says in an interview with the Monitor that the government is trying to scare the opposition leaders into silence ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18.

The government has asked political leaders to refrain from large gatherings and rallies, saying they may become a target of suicide bombers. The request follows the Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

As if to underscore the threat, a suicide bomb attack disrupted a Saturday rally of about 200 supporters of the Awami National Party in Charsadda, a town in northwestern Pakistan, which is a stronghold for Islamic militants. The attack killed about two dozen people and injured twice as many.

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Another rally that day for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), formerly led by Ms. Bhutto, went smoothly. About 100,000 people gathered in the southern city of Thatta, where Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's husband who now leads the party, promised to "save" Pakistan.

Mr. Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), a leading opposition party along with the PPP, admits that campaigning is not without danger. Pakistan has witnessed several suicide attacks on political figures and security personnel in recent months in which dozens of people have been killed.

Sharif, who left Pakistan in exile after being ousted in a bloodless coup by President Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and only returned late last year, says he takes his precautions. Much of his campaign take place indoors, and he travels with armed guards.

The government, says Sharif, is exploiting the threat of attacks to benefit what is often locally referred to as the "king's party." This refers to the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), the party allied with Mr. Musharraf that was in power until an interim government was installed late last year to oversee the elections.

"Every second day the government comes out with a list of people whose lives are in danger. Of course, they say my name is also among those," Sharif says. "But I basically think the government is trying to scare the opposition leaders, because the king's party is not in the position to win the elections."

Sharif is one of the more popular political leaders in Pakistan. His party would win about 25 percent of Pakistanis' vote, according to a survey conducted last month by Terror Free Tomorrow, a US-based organization. Bhutto's party placed first at 37 percent, while PML-Q, the pro-Musharraf party, came in third with 12 percent. "I think the PPP will probably have more votes, but ... the PML-N would not be far behind," says retired general and political analyst Talat Masood.

The PML-N and the PPP have in the past been opponents in their struggle for power, but during this election they may become allies, supporting each other on certain issues such as pushing the Army back out of politics, says Masood: "Now they have a common rival in the form of the PML-Q."

Sharif appeared bitterly critical of Musharraf. Asked if he wanted to impeach Musharraf if he had the necessary two-third-majority vote, Sharif replies that Musharraf "would not be provided any indemnity,"

The longtime political figure is supporting his party's candidates but not running for a seat himself, as the election commission barred him from doing so late last year. Sharif was deemed ineligible because he was convicted in 2000 for hijacking a plane carrying the then-Army chief Musharraf, which led to the coup in 1999.

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