ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court resumed hearing on Thursday a last-ditch bid to block President Pervez Musharraf’s expected re-election as former leader Benazir Bhutto prepared to say in London if her party would boycott the vote.
The Supreme Court could order a postponement to Saturday’s vote by members of two houses of parliament and four provincial assemblies if it rules in favor of petitioners who argue that Musharraf, as army chief, should not be allowed to stand.
If the vote goes ahead, Musharraf looks set to win.
The fate of Musharraf, a staunch U.S. ally, and nuclear-armed Pakistan is being closely watched, especially by Western nations who have troops in Afghanistan and feel threatened by al Qaeda militants hiding on the Pakistani-Afghan border.
If Bhutto, leader of the largest opposition party, decides to join an opposition alliance headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party in a boycott, the vote will lack credibility.
She is due to hold a news conference in London at 1100 GMT (7:00 a.m. EDT) to announce her decision.
Self-exiled Bhutto, 54, plans to return to Pakistan on October 18 after eight years’ absence to lead her party in a general election due by mid-January, in which Musharraf’s ruling coalition is expected to fare badly.
Bhutto has been in talks with Musharraf on a post-election power-sharing pact but she told reporters in London on Wednesday the negotiations had stalled and her members would probably quit parliament before the vote.
Musharraf has promised to quit the army if he is re-elected and on Tuesday he nominated former intelligence chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as the next army commander in the clearest sign yet he would keep his vow and hang up his uniform.
The government also moved to address one of Bhutto’s main demands, saying it had decided to drop corruption charges against her and other civilian leaders.
Bhutto said the announcement was “disinformation.”
The United States, keen to see Pakistan maintain efforts to root out al Qaeda and curb Taliban raids into Afghanistan, has been quietly encouraging Musharraf and Bhutto to work together.
In a major boost to Musharraf last week, the Supreme Court dismissed challenges to his re-election.
But his opponents launched new ones, arguing that as army chief he is ineligible and that anyway the presidential vote should be held after general elections.
Pakistan’s main stock index has gained more than 5 percent this week, largely on hope that Musharraf, who has overseen strong growth and booming stocks, will win re-election.