Former Pakistan premiers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto on Monday decided to draw up a charter of demands to ensure free and fair parliamentary polls and threatened to boycott the elections if their conditions are not met.
The two political rivals set aside their differences to hold marathon talks on Monday night on the issue of participating in the polls, which both said would not be free and fair under the prevailing circumstances.
<b1>While Bhutto has been saying that her Pakistan People's Party will participate in the polls "under protest", Sharif and his PML-N have been pushing for a boycott.
Following their parleys that lasted three-and-a-half hours, the two former premiers told a news conference that an eight-member committee of leaders of their parties would draw up the charter of demands that would be presented to President Pervez Musharraf to ensure free, fair
and transparent polls.
The committee will also set a date for the government to fulfil the demands, failing which the opposition parties would have the option of boycotting the January 8 general election, they said.
"We agreed to draw up a charter of demands and give it to the government. We will give the government a certain amount of time to fulfil the demands. If that is not done, then we feel polls will not be free, fair and transparent. Then we can go towards a boycott," Sharif said.
Bhutto pointed out that the polls should be held as scheduled on January 8 and there should be no postponement. The date for the polls had been announced after a lot of problems, she pointed out.
"We agreed on certain issues, especially the point that the polls will not be free and fair," she said. Sharif said "in the prevailing circumstances, free, fair and transparent elections will not be possible."
The committee, comprising four leaders each from the PPP and PML-N, will frame the charter of demands and set a date for the government to fulfil them in the "next two to three days", Sharif said.
"We don't want to boycott, we have no wish to do so, but if these demands are not met, we will have no option," he asserted. Sharif and Bhutto had earlier formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy while living in exile. They had held several meetings and even signed a charter of democracy but the PPP left the alliance after Bhutto embarked on secret parleys with Musharraf on a possible power-sharing arrangement.
Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan from eight years in exile in October, ended talks with Musharraf after he imposed emergency last month. Sharif returned to Pakistan in November due to pressure on Islamabad from the royal family of Saudi Arabia, where he had been living in exile.
She described Monday's meeting with Sharif as "a major confidence-building step" and expressed the hope that the two leaders "will be able to work together in future".
Bhutto, however, was non-committal on the reinstatement on deposed judges of the Supreme Court a key demand of Sharif's PML-N party. She insisted on the constitution of an independent Election Commission, steps to prevent the setting up of "ghost" polling stations and the cancellation of orders to transfer officials who will supervise the election process.
Bhutto pointed out that the military regime had met several demands raised by the PPP. "The date for the polls was announced, a date has been set for ending the emergency, two former prime ministers are back (from exile) and Musharraf has retired as army chief. These are significant decisions," she said.
She called for the removal of curbs on the media and the freeing of all politicians, lawyers, judges and journalists detained under the emergency.
"We believe the polls will be massively rigged because Musharraf's survival depends on it," Sharif said. Expressing regret at the rejection of Sharif's nomination papers by election authorities, Bhutto defended the PPP's decision to contest the polls to ensure that the ruling PML-Q did not have an open field. Once the PML-Q would not be able to rig the polls, "they are going to pack their bags and run and disappear like rats deserting a sinking ship". The two leaders also asserted that there was no threat to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.