LAHORE, Pakistan, (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Election Commission barred former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on Monday from a Jan. 8 general election because of his criminal record.
Sharif, a two-time prime minister overthrown in 1999 by the then army chief, Pervez Musharraf, has threatened to boycott the Jan. 8 election but had nonetheless registered to run.
Sharif, who returned from seven years of exile on Nov. 25, says the convictions secured against him in the wake of his removal were politically motivated.
Sharif brushed off his disqualification by an election official in the eastern city of Lahore, Sharif’s power base where last week he filed his nomination. He vowed to fight on against what he called dictatorship. “Let them reject the nominations … 10 times or even 100 times. I will serve the people with much more vigour and resolve,” he told his supporters. His disqualification will be seen by the opposition as the result of pressure on election officials by President Musharraf, who critics say has sway over them. “Musharraf is responsible … This is the most blatant form of rigging possible,” said Sharif’s spokesman, Nadir Chaudri. Election officials barred Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, from running last week, citing financial irregularities.
Sharif was convicted of hijacking and terrorism and sentenced to life in prison in 2000 for trying to turn away an aircraft carrying Musharraf, whom he had dismissed as army chief, back from an overseas visit in 1999. The incident precipitated Musharraf’s coup.
He was later convicted on a corruption charge and sent into exile in Saudi Arabia. The constitution bars convicted people from running for parliament.
Sharif arrived in Islamabad from Lahore earlier on Monday for talks with another opposition leader and former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, on his plan to boycott the vote.
Bhutto, who returned from eight years in self-exile in October, says her party will take part in the election, although she has left open the option of joining Sharif in a boycott.
Sharif and his allies, including the second biggest religious party and the small party of former cricket hero Imran Khan, say taking part in the election would legitimise Musharraf’s unconstitutional moves to hold on to power.
Sharif is demanding that Musharraf reinstates the judges he dismissed after he declared emergency rule on Nov. 3.
Bhutto, also a two-time prime minister, says a boycott would leave the field open to Musharraf’s allies who are expected to fare badly in the vote.
A united opposition boycott would rob the vote of credibility and prolong instability in the nuclear-armed country that is crucial to U.S. efforts to fight al Qaeda and bring peace to neighbouring Afghanistan.
Sharif, asked if he would appeal against his disqualification, said: “That amounts to recognising the courts which Mr Musharraf has recently constituted which we don’t consider legitimate.”
Musharraf has promised to lift the emergency by Dec. 16 but he has ruled out reinstating the judges who were believed to have been about to rule invalid his October re-election when he imposed the emergency.
More than 5,000 activists held under the emergency have been freed but a small number of judges and lawyers, including Iftikhar Chaudhry, the former chief justice who defied Musharraf’s bid to dismiss him in March, are under house arrest.
Police stopped U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson from meeting the most prominent detained lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, a former cabinet minister under Bhutto who shot to prominence this year when he acted as Chaudhry’s lawyer, an embassy spokeswoman said.
Visiting Turkish President Abdullah Gul, due to meet Bhutto and Sharif, said all leaders should “behave constructively”. “Democracy is essential for the sustainability of the states but at the same time, the realities of the country should be taken into consideration,” Gul told a news conference.
Gul is the first foreign leader to visit since Musharraf stepped down as army chief and was sworn in as a civilian president last week.