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Bhutto and Sharif yet to talk, say aides

Both leaders are jockeying for position as they seek to lead an opposition front against President Musharraf.

world Updated: Nov 27, 2007 18:20 IST

Former Pakistani prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have not spoken since the latter returned from exile, party aides said Tuesday.

Both leaders are jockeying for position as they seek to lead an opposition front against President Pervez Musharraf ahead of January 8 elections.

Sharif, who returned home on Sunday after seven years in exile, will chair a meeting on Thursday of a coalition of opposition groups to decide whether they should boycott the polls, senior party leader Raja Zafarul Haq said.

Bhutto's party, however -- the largest opposition party in Pakistan -- is not part of the alliance and is widely expected to take part in the vote.

The two leaders and erstwhile rivals spoke by telephone two weeks ago when she was under house arrest and he was still in exile in Saudi Arabia. Since then, contact has been minimal.

Her spokesman Farhatullah Babar said Bhutto sent flowers to Sharif with a message welcoming him home on Sunday. But he said there had been no telephone contact, and that while Bhutto was ready to meet Sharif, nothing had been planned.

"If they meet they will discuss how to make the elections free and fair or whether they should boycott the vote," Babar told AFP.

The party leaders, who have been bitter rivals in the past -- Sharif twice replaced Bhutto as premier -- both say they want to discuss a joint strategy and want an end to emergency rule before any vote.

However a formal electoral alliance is out of the question, and observers believe neither will want to cede electoral advantage to the other.

Sharif has said he would be ready to boycott the elections if there is a consensus to do so -- code for saying that if Bhutto takes part, so will he.

"He has suggested that if we go to the polls party leaders should have working relations and form a strategy against possible rigging of elections," said Siddiqul Farooq, a senior party official in Sharif's party.

"We do not want to boycott elections but conditions are not conducive for free, fair and transparent polls."
Sharif is a religious conservative while Bhutto, a secular leader, is seen by the United States -- keen to preserve Pakistan's role in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban -- as pro-Western.

First Published: Nov 27, 2007 17:47 IST