ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s democratic opposition on Monday accused the government of trying to fix upcoming elections by banning campaign rallies in the aftermath of last week’s bombing of a political procession that left more than 130 dead.
Sadiq ul-Farooq, a leader of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party, called the proposed ban part of a “grand rigging plan.”
The pro-U.S. government of President Pervez Musharraf is considering a ban on the boisterous rallies that play a key role in Pakistani politics as a security measure after a suicide attack shattered the triumphant return from exile of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last Thursday.
But ul-Farooq said Monday that Musharraf “wants to impose this ban on rallies to stop popular opposition leaders from reaching their voters before the parliamentary elections.”
Nazir Dhoki, spokesman for Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party, said: “Rallies are part of the election process. We cannot sit idle during the election season.”
Bhutto’s homecoming was the result of negotiations with Musharraf, the Pakistani army chief who grabbed power in a 1999 coup. Musharraf’s popularity has plummeted this year following pro-democracy protests and a series of terrorist attacks by Islamic radicals.
Seeking to stabilize his regime, he agreed to drop corruption charges against Bhutto and let her return to lead her party in parliamentary elections, due before the end of January. In return, her party did not object to his Oct. 6 re-election as president by a panel of national and provincial lawmakers.
The deal has set the stage for a power-sharing arrangement — with Musharraf as president and Bhutto as prime minister if her party does well in the vote.
Ijaz Shafi Gilani, chairman of pollsters Gallup Pakistan, says many Pakistanis believe that the United States has brokered the deal between the two rivals, who despite many differences share a secular outlook and oppose Islamic extremism.
The Bhutto-Musharraf negotiations — and the apparent U.S. role in them — have drawn sharp criticism in Pakistan. While permitting Bhutto to come back, Musharraf’s government has refused to allow the return by Sharif, another exiled former prime minister. When Sharif flew back to Islamabad in September, he was detained, bundled onto an airplane and sent back to Saudi Arabia. He has vowed to try to return again next month and re-enter politics.
Sharif had testy relations with the United States while in office in the ’90s and is close to Islamic fundamentalists. He also is the most popular politician in the country at the moment.
Sharif has a 53% approval rating versus 36% for Bhutto and 22% for Musharraf, according to a poll of 4,009 Pakistani adults conducted in August and September by the International Republican Institute, the democracy-promoting arm of the U.S. Republican Party.
“You might not like Nawaz Sharif’s face,” says Gilani, the pollster. “But if someone wants to contest the election, you should give them a level playing field.”
Contributing: wire reports.
Corrections & Clarifications
October 31, 2007, page 2A
The International Republican Institute, a non-partisan organization that is based in Washington and promotes democracy worldwide, is not affiliated with the Republican Party. It was misidentified in stories on Pakistan that ran Monday and on Oct. 23 and Oct. 17.