Ruling out any parleys with President Pervez Musharraf, former Pakistani Premiers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have indicated that they would boycott the 2007 elections in the country if not allowed to contest and demanded the polls be held under an interim government.
"Both of us would like to find a way to contest the elections to help Pakistan make a transition to democracy. But those elections need to be fair, free and impartial.
They need to be open to all political parties. And if they are not, honestly, all options (including boycott) will be on the table for us to consider," Bhutto and Sharif said on Thursday night.
At a joint press conference with Sharif at the end of over four-hour deliberations on the Charter of Democracy here, Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party, said during the deliberations several leaders insisted that unless they were allowed to contest the elections, they should boycott the next elections.
"Because they said, people of Pakistan want one set of leaders. If they cannot contest, then at least elections are a mockery and why lend it legitimacy."
"Musharraf regime is today causing a great deal of harm to the country and therefore today again we decided that Musharraf will never be entertained for any contact for political purposes. There will be no negotiations or parleys," Sharif said.
Referring to Musharraf's assertion that he would not allow Bhutto and Sharif to come and participate in the polls, Sharif said, "then he is not talking about holding free and fair elections."
"Both of us agree that the General Elections, scheduled between October 2007 and February 2008 should be held under a neutral caretaker set up and free and fair elections are only possible under a neutral set up because Musharraf should not be able to influence the elections," Sharif said.
The meeting between the two leaders comes amid reports of a rift between the two over suspected back-channel contacts between PPP and the government backed by President Pervez Musharraf for a political rapproachment. Sharif and Bhutto allied themselves against Musharraf in May and vowed to restore democracy in Pakistan.
Noting that there could not be fair and free elections when leaders of the two major parties are not permitted to return to the country, Bhutto said international community had made a commitment to the democratisation of Pakistan and "it is important for the international community to see fair and free elections could only be held when all political parties are given a level-playing field".
The two leaders said they had heart to heart discussions on all issues. "We had an open and candid discussion and we have consensus on all issues that we have been discussing before and the issues that confront Pakistan today," Sharif said.
Sharif said, "We are gearing up the party and preparing for the elections. We are a major political party and we have every right to contest elections. We are not running away from elections. Our demand is that Pakistan must have free and fair elections in 2007."
At the same time, he said they were holding discussions with other political parties who believe in democracy, rule of law and the Constitution of 1973.
"So there is no problem in talking to them, trying to arrive at a joint platform to get the result (ouster of Musharraf).
Bhutto said, "We have certain issues that pertain to dictatorship. We have certain issues, which pertain to military intervention in the politics of Pakistan. We do not see eye to eye with Musharraf on such issues."
Asked whether he would have the support of the armed forces, Sharif said there is a difference between armed forces and Musharraf who wants to perpetuate his regime with the help of armed forces. Musharraf is misusing the armed forces. Our strength is the people of Pakistan."
Bhutto said she was greatly concerned about the regrouping of and reorganisation of Taliban in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
"As a Pakistani, I am deeply concerned that the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is suspected to be holed up in the tribal belt of Afghanistan-Pakistan.
I envisage, a Pakistan working with the Karzai government to help bring democracy in the region, establish peace with its neighbour India, internally from the threats of militants who have been bombing diplomatic missions, churches mosques and killing people randomly in the cities. As an analyst said Pakistan is on the edge of chaos," she added.